Art on the Arabian peninsula is swinging. From Abu Dhabi to Sharjah, and from Kuwait to Sana’a, artistic expressions of different forms – paintings, theater, photography, galleries, and more are fast becoming genuine expressions of popular culture. The Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah is now catching up fast, with a vibrant scene that this month saw at least three major cultural events, at the same time as the city itself seeks to become a UNESCO World heritage site.
One such event was the Jeddah Art Week which this year was held from 1-6 February. JAW-2014 has been an overwhelming success, not because of the several thousands of people who visited the exhibition but because JAW has managed to draw attendance and support from a cross-section of Jeddah community, Lina Lazaar, founder of JAW, told the Saudi English daily Arab News. “Art knows no language, has no race, gender, or nationality, and JAW-2014 has been a triumph in showcasing the richness of Jeddah’s vibrant community through art,” she said.
The event made for a week full of regional and international contemporary art, displayed through a dozen exhibitions, street performances, and outdoor installations. Arab News said that “Jeddah Art Week literally turned out to be a ‘JAW’-dropping event with an impressive 6,000 people turning up for its grand opening at Park Hyatt, on Feb. 1, and the number growing through the week with people pouring in to see the biggest art event of the year.”
These art initiatives were not only aiming to invigorate the local art scene, by establishing a creative dialogue that reflected various cultural influences common to the region, but also to capture international attention with a display of selected works from internationally reputed artists.
In this context, Damien Hirst’s Tranquility (2008) and Har Megiddo (2008) paintings were showcased for Sotheby’s Contemporary Highlights exhibition, and eL Seed was invited to do a street-art performance, entitled Poetic Ballad, which kicked-off the art fair. eL Seed was commissioned to embellish Al Balad, Jeddah’s historical city district, with his specific style of “calligrafitti” art.
Other artists included up-and-coming Middle Eastern talents, such as pop-culture artists Huda Beydoun and Shaweesh, who produced a humor-filled critique of the Kingdom’s political and social status quo. Additionally, more well-established names were present, including Saudi artist Khalid Zahid and his ‘I Dream Kingdom’ solo-show, along with Tunisian calligraphers Nja Mahdaoui and Khaled Ben Slimane, who exhibited Mapping Azimuth: Two Calligraphic Ascensions, an installation curated by Galerie El Marsa.
JAW also made a statement by addressing topics of the moment, such as the influence of social media and internet on every day life (Esc, Virtual Reality, design installation by Nour Kelani), the stereotypical representation of Saudi Arabian women (Single Saudi Woman, exhibition by Wasma Mansour), and the on-going Orientalism trend (a collection of works by Dr. Mohammed Abu Al Naja).
JAW offers a platform for people to gather and celebrate art and culture, says lawyer Faisal Yamani, who attended the event. “Today, we saw many local and international artists coming together to showcase their work and I am very happy to see this in Saudi Arabia,” he said, adding: “I don’t have any particular art piece as favorite. I got to see many artists and loved everything and I saw many pieces that I wanted to acquire but some of them have been sold while some are still being negotiated.”
“Art is neither old nor young in Saudi Arabia. We cannot give it an age or historically link it to the Kingdom or its people. Seeing the younger generation attending such an event is very impressive and that’s very promising,” said Yamani.