Saudi Arabia Ushers in a Fresh Epoch For Islamic Art

Saudi Arabia Ushers in a Fresh Epoch For Islamic Art
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Taking place between the first and fourth of April 2023 in Jeddah, the Islamic Art Biennale has redefined what it means to present and contextualise Islamic art, history, and design across a spectrum of subject areas. 

Rich Report talks about their impressions and highlights from the exhibition as part of their review of the event. 

‘The point of art is to explore grey areas,’ explains Louisa Macmillan, who will participate in a panel discussing the relationship between traditional and modern art at Art Dubai in March, ‘And to find exceptions to every rule.’

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As part of the Islamic Arts Biennale, Macmillan was speaking about the ambitious exhibition set to open in Jeddah in January 2023, the largest Islamic art exhibition since the World of Islam Festival, which featured Sotheby's as a supporting partner, which opened in Jeddah in January 2023.

A biennale for Islamic arts is an intriguing concept: what does it mean? It was a straightforward proposition: contemporary art, a global purview, and a stated curatorial thesis for Saudi Arabia's first biennale, the 2021 Contemporary Art Biennale at the JAX District in Diriyah. What about an Islamic arts biennial? 

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It's not straightforward to explicitly promote religious themes in contemporary art, despite the fact that 'Islamic art' is itself a fluid category.

It's like listening to music telling a story - the Biennale's venue leads you through new, purpose-built galleries that feature both contemporary commissions and Islamic artefacts, into a bright, expansive light under the billowing tents of the Hajj pilgrimage terminal.

The beauty of the show had to be forgotten for a moment in order to focus on the implications and wider context of it.

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There is a lot of controversy involved in wading into this territory. How is 'Islamic' defined? Geographically, chronologically, or thematically? Are artists Muslim simply because they are Muslim? 'Art' itself is a problem: many scholars have argued that Islamic art is a Western construct, too visually focused to appreciate the wide range of sensory and spiritual experiences in Islamic culture.

It is important to mention these questions because they demonstrate the radical nature of the Islamic Arts Biennale, which the Diriyah Biennale Foundation has successfully addressed by refusing to provide a defined definition of Islam and allowing the works to provide their own interpretations.

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Thus, we encounter contemporary pieces that respond to elements of Islam, such as Joe Namy's Adhan installation that opened the exhibition. A knotted painting by Bangladeshi artist Kamruzzaman Shadhin, The River Remembers (2023), speaks to a sense of memory and connectedness. 

Further into the exhibition, we are able to see how Moath Alofi developed his work with Sumayya Vally, one of the four curators of the exhibition, in order to make a simple mark in defining a space that sets apart from the everyday world around it, using a simple border made up of rocks.

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An additional deviation from the usual biennale strategy of sticking to modern art (though with increasing exceptions) is the juxtaposition of ancient artefacts and contemporary works. As a result, Rich Report sees the Diriyah Biennale Foundation as showing confidence in the publication.

There is no room for levity when it comes to confidence. Since Saudi Arabia is also an Islamic country, staging an Islamic arts biennale might make more sense than a contemporary art biennale because of interest and religious commitment. 

At the time, there were a few Saudi Arabian women, two international KOLs (key opinion leaders, in consultant-speak), and three Pakistani men dressed in shalwar kameez, all fascinated by Muhannad Shono’s sublime installation Lines in Light, Lines We Write, 2023.)

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In the last 12 months, I have seen two major Saudi-adjacent exhibitions that freely mixed work from different time periods and categories (art, decorative arts, documents, and artefacts). Five works were loaned by the Diriyah Biennale for the Lyon Biennial, which was curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath. 

With pieces from Lyon's state museum collections, Bardaouil and Fellrath created a mise-en-scene depicting the history of the textile industry in Lyon and its markets in Beirut, acknowledging racism and colonialism in the process.

In general, biennales tend to be theatrical through the exhibition's setting; consider the 2006 Berlin Biennial's Of Mice and Men, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Ali Subotnick, and Massimiliano Gioni, which utilized evocative spaces along Berlin's Auguststraße, including a historic former Jewish girls' school, to produce a show that played out like a novel.

It was obvious that the scale of the installation conveyed a sense of accomplishment for this event. Following her visit to the site, Sotheby's Mai Eldib commented: "I cannot even begin to describe the scale of the architecture, it is a magnificent space, very moving." Nothing like this exists anywhere else in the world for Islamic art that combines old and new.

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'There is nothing like this in terms of scale for Islamic art anywhere in the world, that combines ancient and modern, it's amazing' - MAI ELDIB, Director/Head of Middle East Sales (Cairo/Dubai)

Now, the curatorial creative hand moves to selecting artworks themselves, which tend to take place, among other places, in non-Western or postcolonial contexts. Due to Saudi Arabia's still-emerging art infrastructure, there are no clear categories between these art forms, but one could argue that such categories are unprecedentedly fluid among Saudi Arabian contemporary artists.

In today's Saudi society, young creative professionals come to fine arts after training in diverse disciplines, including architecture (Bricklab), design (Basmah Felemban), and architecture and calligraphy (Nasser Al Salem).

As a whole, the exhibition at the Islamic Arts Biennale celebrated Islam's beauty, from beautiful prayer mats to Quran calligraphy, and argued that Islam's aesthetic and spiritual value is not limited to historical documents of religion, but can also be found in arenas that are coded as global and progressive, like contemporary art.

A sense of a revival of Islamic art, however one defines the category, accounted for the biennial's acclaim.

‘Islamic art can be quite a dry subject,’ says former British Museum curator Venetia Porter. ‘I use scripts and ceramics and metalwork – but you don't ever look at the object; you don't think of them as living. What they did in the biennial was to turn them into living things. And then the contemporary pieces echoed back. It was absolutely sensational.’ 

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