When I watch my film, Fragments, I feel like I'm witnessing a bohemian Arabian dream. On our expedition, I was introduced to an underground creative arts scene in Saudi Arabia that changed my life. Modernity has crystallized the cultural outlook of many Saudi Arabians and influenced their expression of tradition through contemporary art. This all points to an electric time in the region and Jeddah seems to be right at the heart of it.
The culture of collectivity that underlies the region of Hijaz inspired me in many ways. It is a universal lesson of coexistence and mutual appreciation and respect. The fact that a community can be so diverse yet unified is a beautiful emblem for how humanity should be. It is true what Ahmad Angawi said to us on our trip:
"In order to be global, act local."
Glocal was definitely one of the themes of our trip. Ten artists along with the Edge of Arabia organizers, all unified by a passion for the arts and on a common mission and belief that it can change the world. I feel that through our shared experiences we really did paint a portrait of Saudi Arabia beyond the stereotype. We discovered a different part of ourselves along the way, as well as the hidden "gems" of society that will always leave their inspirational mark on our life's path.
I am sitting in a bedouin tent, listening to traditional flute music played by a local dressed in regional costume with flowers in his hair. These flowers are put in their hair to help it smell nice, as they can’t wash frequently due to the lack of water.
But let’s start at the beginning of the day...
The day began with a visit to the Al-Miftaha artists’ village in Abha - a space for artists to work in their own studios. This location was the beginning for artists Ahmed Mater, and Abdulnasser Gharem and is what eventually led to the independent arts initiative, Edge of Arabia. After having heard so much about it, it was sad to see the place so quiet and ghost-like. We were shown around one working studio, splashed with paint and a creative vibe. It is a shame that the potential of this place has been allowed to fade away. I wonder what has gone wrong?
We then visited Saudi’s highest point – the air was thick with clouds, preventing us from seeing down into the valley… probably just as well! The place was attractive in its own way, and as always the journey to get there was also a huge part of it: winding roads, views of fields, and baboons in clusters.
We have now just finished a delicious barbeque of chicken, bread, and salad, in an open-air tent. The red carpets create a very colourful setting, and the darkness of the night is wrapped around us like a cloak. Perfect.
The expedition is coming to a close, and we are filled with mixed emotions of joy and sadness. It will be great to go home and create something from what we have learnt. But it will also be sad to leave Saudi and the new friends that we have made.
This journey has been eye-opening for me, but has also not been easy. Fitting into a new culture where women are expected to live quietly and cover themselves was a challenge. Further, this experience was far from a holiday - each day we have been working, taking notes, blogging, taking photographs and videos and making sketches. What we have to take away with us therefore, is something amazing and something unique. We have witnessed daily life in a country that is rarely seen by outsiders and we have learnt about the struggles faced by individuals within the art world. It has made me realise how lucky I am in that I can easily express myself creatively in the UK. It has also made me feel sad that British culture has lost the close family bonds and the simple values that are still thriving in Saudi. Technology should not rule, people should. They are what matter and we should learn to take care of each other. The love and dedication that others have for their religion is admirable. It is not negative, but positive.
I know for sure that the journey does not end here, and that I will continue learning throughout the rest of my life. The beauty is that there is always something more to learn, and if this involves breaking down negative stereotypes of Muslims in the Western world, then I will be honoured to add my drop into the ocean.
The moment I stepped into Athr Gallery, I was welcomed with a huge smile and the atmosphere was electric.
"Welcome to our oasis."
Hamza Serafi is the co-founder of the first ever contemporary art gallery in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His warmth and enthusiasm is very contagious and it wasn't long before we found ourselves in an in-depth conversation about the significance of contemporary art in the Arab world. Being an artist himself, he was the perfect person to introduce us to the underground art scene that surrounded us in his gallery.
Even though people like him are still very much a minority, the fact that they exist is symbolic in itself. The undercurrents of change and evolution are apparent and Saudis are doing it out of love and respect for their country. It is not about smashing social norms, but working within them, to help shape a mould that fits the context of the globalised world of today. We met many artists, critics and enthusiasts that floated around Athr gallery’s space, absorbing the creative expression that surrounded us.
It made me realize that the most powerful tools in this day and age are art and culture. They are the keys to unlocking cultural doors that are bound by stereotypical misconception. Young artists in Saudi are experimenting with the modern culture of our generation, reinterpreting it as a part of their identity and renovating it for the future. Whether it be graffiti, installations or photography, it is not only a sociological discourse, but also an extension of innovating our modern identity as the young Arab generation.
I learned a lot from the underground art community in Jeddah. It made me appreciate the institutions that support my creative and cultural thirst to explore and express myself in Qatar. It taught me to value even the smallest details in my everyday life, because if looked at in the right light, you can interpret it into a piece of art. At the end of the day, art is an extension of our psyche; it is a mindset of self-definition and cross-cultural communication. An introduction to the psychology of a region that is still relatively undiscovered and misunderstood.
There is no doubt that I am witnessing history in the making. To be a part of a movement that will be remembered for generations to come is mind-blowing. It is apparent that the seeds of innovation are being planted, and they will flourish for many years to come - not only in Saudi Arabia, but in the Arab world at large.
To begin the day by opening your curtains and being faced with the view of a brick wall gives you a bit of an idea of the accommodation the team is staying in. But I love it. This is the real Saudi Arabia. I was concerned that this expedition would provide the team with a lavish lifestyle but we got to experience so many different aspects of this amazing country.
The highlights of today included roaming around the streets of Jeddah with Seb and Marouan, visiting Athr Gallery and eating at Nakeel. The restaurant was very generous with its portions and the food just kept on coming. I was full after just the starters. During the meal, Seb voiced his disapproval of the segregation there is in public places. What I loved the most was the fact that, even though Seb disagreed with the setup of the seating plan, he still respected the rules of the restaurant. His willingness to be open-minded is very admirable and I am proud that he is from the UK. I was also pleased to hear that the leftovers from the restaurant would go to help feed the poor in the vicinity.
Later on, we were lucky enough to be able to spend some time at the successful Athr Gallery; the future of art in Saudi got brighter as the day progressed. Hamza Serafi explained how he wants to set new standards for artwork in Saudi Arabia.
The struggle faced by Saudi artists was evident even just from the location of Athr Gallery. We had to walk through a mall, up two floors and through a car park to reach the gallery. Conversing with several people painted a bigger picture of the need of aspiring artists and how this has affected the kingdom as a consequence of the lack of creativity.
On our visit to Athr Gallery, we spent the day with its founders, Hamza Serafi and Mohamed Hafez, and also with Nasser Al-Salem, an emerging young Saudi artist. Nasser has witnessed the change in his country and the effect it has had on his family's trade: tent making. Nasser expresses the disappearance of his family’s trade through a unique art piece titled Zamzam.
We discussed art in Saudi and learnt about one of the oldest Arab art forms, calligraphy. We were introduced to the history of calligraphy and the material. Nasser emphasized the importance of the quality of paper and organically made ink. He also explained that galleries tend to turn down art pieces that are made using chemical inks. The reason for that is that chemical inks tend to fade over time, while organically made inks last much longer. This explains why old Quranic scripts have survived all these years.
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