Casual Art Talk #3 Summary and More
Topic: We Need to Talk
It has been a very hectic month and I apologize for the delay in posting the summary. I am glad I took my time with it though because the art talks that followed answered many questions.
CAT #3 (Jan 23rd) was very productive and I was very glad that everyone had a good time. Four of us went together to Edge of Arabia’s exhibition “We Need to Talk”, and had a wonderful time discussing the work there. We and 9 others got together later that week to discuss the exhibition. Has it met our expectations?
Before I go into details, I would like to thank Mohammed Bakhrieba for introducing Call of Culture to us. Please take time to check the Facebook page. The concept is wonderful and I’m sure many of you would be interested. Call of Culture will give individuals the opportunity to talk about their initiatives internationally. It’s an invitation to help the world know Saudi Arabia for what it really is, and not just “oil and desert.”
We proceeded later on to discussing the exhibition. What has the exhibition added to our local art scene? What were art appreciators and artists expecting? (I’m only using initials this time because these are the opinions of individuals and should all have equal importance regardless of their names)
NS: “It established the idea of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia. However I was expecting more. But generally it was good.”
AP: “I found some of the installations very interesting, like Ahmad Angawi’s Street Pulse Project.”
DH: “The title of the exhibition is “We Need to Talk.” You’d think that it would start conversations dealing with local issues, but it didn’t.”
Although I somewhat agree with DH’s statement, many did talk about one local issue after that exhibition, which is the art scene in Saudi Arabia.
B: “I felt that media’s exaggeration of things kind of ruined it for me. It made me expect more. We’ve seen some of the work already. Furthermore, I didn’t get the relationship between the exhibition title and the subcategories (Past, Present, Future).”
I could not see the theme either. Whatever connection I felt to the past in the exhibition was mainly because of the pieces below by Saddek Wasil, Maha Malluh, Mohammed Al Ghamdi and Nasser Al Salem. Putting them among the work of Ayman Yossri took away from the concept of “Past” in my opinion.
D: “I felt like there was no connectivity in the theme, but I have to give Edge of Arabia credit for having an event in Saudi Arabia. And regarding media, I agree that there was too much hype.”
B: “I think there are local artists that are very talented in my opinion and they should have exhibited some of their work.”
There was a call for artists, but I honestly have not seen any new names except for Ahad Al Amoudi. Did they just choose what “happened to be under the theme”? It looks like it. None of us knew about the theme until the opening.
D: “Certain artwork seemed to be enforcing religion, some to the point that it was a bit repelling.”
B: “I personally think that religion was misused in some pieces. It felt like it was about what’s trendy.”
M: “It’s like when you use a certain design element to send a certain message and you know it would work. Some artwork felt like it used religion the same way.”
DH: “But religion is a major part of our lives here in Saudi Arabia! Of course it had to be there.”
AA: “I like to look at the glass half full. I loved how the artists were expressing themselves freely. Each message felt personal. My overall impression is that this was an exhibition for the public, but the public isn’t that aware of art and culture.
I was totally inspired in the exhibition, although not all the pieces were inspirational.”
After going over my notes, I felt like something was missing. Something else needed to be discussed but wasn’t. Therefore, we had another CAT at Edge of Arabia’s education room on January 31st, with the topic “What the Fudge is Contemporary Art?” and over 20 attendees. (Below are notes taken by Rawa’a AbdulKarim based on my audio summary, and revised by yours truly)
The discussion started with a question: “How do you define contemporary art?” Focusing on Arab contemporary art, what aspects make it Arab and what aspects make it lose its identity? Some Arab artists’ work is labeled as “non Arab” because it leans more towards western ideologies and matters rather than reflecting the country’s identity within the work.
Contemporary art should address contemporary issues, social or political. As long as the audience feels the current situation is mirrored in an artwork, it is considered contemporary.
It got quite challenging to keep the discussion on track due to the number of attendees; side tracks took us to a heated debate about the sculptures in the “Open Air Museum” and how they are irrelevant to Hijaz (Jeddah). “There is nothing Hijazi about those sculptures. I never felt they belonged here, even though we grew up around them,” said BF.
In my personal opinion, it is important to keep in mind the world is becoming a village due to globalization and these sculptures relate to the city representing its foreign exposure. Jeddah is not the only city that lost its identity due to urbanization. We see this phenomenon portrayed in Sarah Al Abdali’s work at Edge of Arabia “We Need to Talk.” I honestly wish they gave her room to show more of her work, because she is one of few artists that the people of Jeddah (Hijaz) could relate to.
An important topic came up when I addressed Nasser Salem asking him what the difference between calligraphy as traditional art and calligraphy as seen in contemporary art. It is a vital question due to the popularity of Arabic typography being used in several artworks. What differentiates a contemporary piece from a traditional one? “Back in the day, calligraphy was used for aesthetic purposes. Calligraphers wrote Quran verses or poetry and used Islamic ornaments and patterns. On the other hand, contemporary calligraphy portrays a concept or a message.” A good example of a contemporary calligraphic piece would be the “History of Kaaba” (exhibited at Young Saudi Artists 2011) by Nasser Salem, which displays the shift between the traditional and contemporary calligraphy since the artist used the medium to portray a concept.
One conclusion would be impossible to sum up the meeting, but I can say we all agreed that contemporary art has nothing to do with the media. It is rather the message it portrays. The audience has to relate to the message and feel that the piece speaks to them.
Some questions remained unanswered such as, “should Arab artists distance their work from any western influences ?”
I found one possible answer to this question in two lectures by Rose Issa , who is a curator, producer, publisher and writer who specializes in contemporary art from the Arab World and Iran. She started the lecture by presenting contemporary artworks by Iranian artists, which was quite interesting and thought provoking. Many Iranian artists immigrated and found it more difficult to find inspiration while they were abroad. However, when they returned to Iran, they found so much inspiration due to the presence of major social and political issues. It was easy to find a message to send to the people. Such aspects is what makes an artwork contemporary.
In order for a contemporary piece to be valuable to art collectors or the culture the artist comes from, it should show some kind of documentation of current events and issues. As Esra Pound said, “Artists are the antennae of the race”, and are therefore expected to create work that lets the audience see themselves in it.
I came to understand why some tend to exclude works that are considered too western. Most of this work is not what people from our culture see or feel within themselves and therefore only a small audience might be able to relate to it.
In my personal opinion, the artist should adapt the style they feel comfortable with the most, while exploring different mediums of styles. There are many debates on whether artists should satisfy market demand, thus striping the artist from the complete freedom of exploring and expressing in his or her own style.
Below is a good example by Bosnian artist Damir Niksic. The language used is English since his target audience are English speakers and he obviously didn’t display his cultural taste in the video.
In her last lecture, “Criteria of Choice in a Collection”, Rose Issa named 4 criteria that art collectors look for when buying any work:
There continues to be great debate among artists whether to do what appeals to art collectors or not.
The last art talk I attended was February 14th, which was hosted by Aya Alireza, co-curator of Edge of Arabia “We Need to Talk.”
The topic of the discussion was “Saudi Art” , which revolved around the same issues discussed in CAT #2, and also answered some questions. YK for instance brought up the hidden talents in Saudi who are not exposed, and added that Edge of Arabia and galleries like Athr Gallery should reach out to them. The answer to that is simple. It is the artist’s choice whether they want to remain hidden in a closet or be more ambitious and get their work exposed.
AM brought up another issue, which is art education. HS put it quite simply: “Art education should start at kindergarten. That is the difference between art there and art here.”
I brought to their attention how if there were more concept exhibitions where the youth could contribute their work to. A good example is “Raising the Stereotype” exhibition by The Ara Gallery in Dubai which I participated in.
AM explained that Athr Gallery is a commercial gallery and depending on local young artists to contribute to an exhibition is risky because the artists are still fresh and there aren’t enough passionate local artists to help the gallery sustain itself by just exhibiting work by local artists.
DH explained that “Young Saudi Artists” exhibition was born because Athr Gallery received many portfolios from local talents. The first YSA exhibition was held last year to showcase the work of young local talents.
Another topic in the discussion was censorship. Some argued that artwork shouldn’t be censored while others were pro-censorship. “I can’t show work that offends people and hurts their feelings,” said MH. The artist should be able to talk to his audience without making them feel uneasy towards his work. That is the difference between amateurs and true artists.
Edge of Arabia “We Need to Talk” is a great start for the local art scene and it has honestly raised the barr, despite the fact that it has not met some expectations including my own. However, there were definitely some new and original pieces that will continue to be mentioned in future art discussions.
Curators, artists and art appreciators are all hoping the momentum will be taken advantage of.
Next post will be a detailed critique of “We Need to Talk”. It may be considered late, but a lot of discussions needed to take place to help me figure out where I stand.