Although Saudi Arabia has suppressed any hints of social dissent in the last two years, the Arab Spring continues to have an impact. As the regional leader of Sunni Islam, the government has sent money and arms to rebels in neighboring Syria. At home, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has offered minor, liberalizing concessions, including permitting women greater employment opportunities and the possibility of both running for political office and voting in the 2015 local elections, although they are still not allowed to drive.
Slow shifts in Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Wahhabist culture are mirrored in the art scene. Many artists still tend to work in abstract styles to avoid conflicts with official censors over figurative works—nudes are banned—but often show more provocative works abroad. Government patronage is negligible and there is no fine arts museum, although universities now offer art degrees.
Artists exhibit in a handful of galleries, primarily in the capital Riyadh and in Jeddah, the kingdom’s most socially liberal city, which is home to a modest art scene. Athr Gallery is Jeddah’s most active, and was the only Saudi gallery at the Art Dubai art fair (3/21–24). It featured sculptor Ayman Yossri Daydban in “I Am Anything, I Am Everything” (1/20–2/16) and Saddek Wasil’s mixed-media objects (5/6–6/1).
Also in Jeddah, the British–Saudi venture Edge of Arabia, which since 2008 has organized platforms for Saudi artists in London, Venice, Berlin, Istanbul and Dubai, held “We Need to Talk” (1/20–2/26), with over 40 new works by an increasingly visible generation of young artists. Later in the year, Edge of Arabia’s exhibition in east London, “#Cometogether” (10/7–28), displayed artists from across North Africa and West Asia. In November, Edge of Arabia’s commercial arm, EOA Projects, opened a 2,000-square-foot office and gallery space in a former warehouse in Battersea, London.
The Saudi capital of Riyadh is less dynamic, but the country’s newest multipurpose venture, Alāan Artspace, opened its doors in October with “SoftPower” (10/3–12/10), featuring projects by Sarah Mohanna al-Abdali, Sarah Abu Abdallah and Manal al-Dowayan.
At the National Museum in Riyadh, the British Council organized “Out of Britain: 100 Years of British Landscape Art” (4/23–5/25), which later traveled to venues
in al-Khobar and Jeddah.
Several Saudi-run ventures are based abroad. In London, Lahd Gallery, run by painter Princess Nouf bint Bandar al-Saud, exhibited Syrian artist Khaled Akil (1/12–3/7). In Amsterdam, the Greenbox Museum exhibits the collection of contemporary Saudi Arabian art assembled by its Dutch founder Aarnout Helb.
Galleries in the Gulf offer Saudi artists international exposure. Manal al-Dowayan exhibited at Dubai’s Cuadro Fine Art with her collaborative project “Esmi” (9/17–10/25). In Doha, Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem, Saeed Salem and Sara al-Abdali showed together at the Katara Galleries (3/8–4/8). Bahrain-born, Paris-based Faisal Samra exhibited at HD Gallery in Casablanca (3/30–4/28).
Among the year’s Middle East-themed exhibitions, several Saudi artists participated in “Arab Express: The Latest Art from the Arab World” (6/16–10/28) at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, in “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” (11/13–4/7/13) at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and in “Hajj – Journey to the Heart of Islam” (1/26–4/15) at the British Museum. Saudi artists were included at Galeri Zilberman in Istanbul in “Tesselation Make Up” (9/15–10/20). Abdulnasser Gharem had a solo exhibition at Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna (6/22–7/7). In London, Selma Feriani Gallery featured Maha Mullah’s sculptures made from found materials in “Just Des(s)erts” (10/9–11/10).
Looking ahead, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran is still awaiting the completion of its building, while it has been reported that Edge of Arabia will be touring US universities in 2013 and 2014.