©Manal AlDowayan, Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, 2020, in situ installation, Al Ula, KSA

Taming intangible forces – the contemporary artistic scene in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Located in a former industrial area in the northwest of the Riyadh, JAX district is one of the numerous initiatives of the Ministry of Culture destined to improve the cultural ecosystem of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. JAX hosts numerous artists’ studios, designer workshops, exhibitions venues, and its energy might have something of Berlin in the early 2000s, with its countless building sites, empty warehouses, and creative people willing to take over. The financial aspects are nonetheless complex here, as well as the ambiguity of status of European guest curators flying in and out. The decision to visit Muhannad Shono in his new studio in JAX was propelled not only by the will of catching up, but also by a personal curiosity towards a universe perceived as far away – after all, Saudi Arabia opened to tourism only in 2018 as part of the reforms introduced by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

I met Shono in Berlin in 2017. At that time, long before his national participation in the Venice Biennial, he was a resident of Bethanien Künstlerhaus, and I was a young independent curator looking for artists to include in a new project, the platform daydreamers.biz. His practice caught my attention: through drawings, installations, films, sculptures, and computer programmed-induced productions, Shono unveils the poetic of the immaterial world. An intimate mysticism, yet capable of unearthing deep relational aspects between humans and the world around. His work was recently shown also at the Lyon Biennale, along with another Saudi artist, Filwa Nazer, who is based in Jeddah. Nazer’s ghostly apparitions in Lugdunum, the archaeological museum of Lyon, made from mixed textiles with geometric embroidery typically worn by Saudi women, allured to the presence and absence of the female body through her interpretation of the memories of five of them.

Thanks to Shono I could get in touch with other artists based in JAX: Ayman Zedani and Ahmed Mater. Zedani explores residual traces in landscapes through the prism of human-non-human interactions, in order to reveal existent or fictional bio-chemical relations mirroring realities. Ahmed Mater belongs to a slightly older generation of Saudi artists, and his work has been presented outside the peninsula for more than a decade, also thanks to its representation through Continua gallery. His studio is a multi-faced factory, with an open library, a co-working space, a wood workshop that was currently occupied by a luthier, and a darkroom in which the artist experiments with Plexiglas plates on a self-made large-format glass-plate camera. Through his interdisciplinary work, Mater tries to grasp the invisible forces that are capable to animate masses and matter, like faith, or electricity. His project Ashab Al-Lal – Fault Mirage, is due to be presented in 2024 in Al Ula, a city in the northwest site of the Kingdom where the Desert X Biennial took place in 2020 and 2022. Although some works presented during the inaugural edition, such as Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s Glimpses of the past, a large-scale installation about 80 m long, gathering around 6000 tin dates containers crossing the desert as a shimmering snake, few vestiges can be still found while walking through the desert canyons. One of them is Now you see me – Now you don’t (2020), by Manal Al Dowayan. Her installation groups 12 round, black trampolines of variable dimensions, hidden like shadows between the rocks during the day and backlit during the night: creating light wells shining from the deep of the ground underneath.

It is thrilling to see how the practices of this generation of Saudi artists can be approached through two axes of understanding: on one side, the dichotomy presence/absence, in which the impalpable nature of what we call ‘reality’ is explored and conjured; on the other, the diversion and appropriation of formal structures that are used as propulsion towards future creative horizons.

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