I was invited to join a group of 20 “cultural influencers” on a week-long art tour through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in February. The trip was organized and paid for by the new Aramco-funded King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, the centerpiece of which is a giant new compound designed by the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta. The goal of the trip was to build cultural bridges between KSA and the Western world.
I imagine I was invited because I was the first art critic to review Phantom Punch, the first comprehensively curated exhibition of Saudi contemporary art to open in the United States. Phantom Punch ran at the Bates College Museum of Art from October 28, 2016 to March 18, 2017 and was curated by Loring Danforth, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Anthropology, and Dan Mills, the Director of the Bates College Museum of Art. (Click here to see my Nov 7, 2016 review in the Maine Sunday Telegram: Contemporary Saudi works highlight a fast-evolving art scene.
The vast new cultural complex is scheduled to open in late 2017. Snøhetta has delivered an architectural masterpiece, even if it was seemingly plopped with the mirage logic of an imagined oasis in the middle of a thirsty desert. But the center is much more than a building. It is an institution dedicated to education through indigenous and international perspectives including design, culture, creative economy subjects, entrepreneurialism and information technologies.
My group, the first such group to be invited by the Center, comprised mostly Americans, but among the curators and museum professionals from the Warhol Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, etc, were artists and arts professionals from France, Norway, England and elsewhere.
As an art critic, I am by nature skeptical of any culture narrative presented to me. The Center’s story, after all, seemed a typical marketing pitch: A new art facility goes up and a press event is held with the standard PR goal of free ink. There was certainly a PR component to this, but it is genuinely newsworthy. This isn’t just another facility among others like it, the Center and the inviting of “cultural influencers” are aspects of an extraordinary cultural shift in Saudi Arabia. As Americans, we have historical reasons as well as current political reasons to be skeptical, but we need to take this shift very seriously. What we have before us is a hand extended at a critical moment for our society as well as theirs. With headlines
about proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, financial concerns related to the collapse of oil prices, human rights abuses, it’s easy to miss the cultural potential of a more open relationship between the US and KSA. It may be on the cultural and societal levels where the most significant changes are taking place and so it would be a mistake for Americans and Saudis to pass up the opportunity for cultural dialogue. In the spirit of transparency, equality and freedom, I believe that opening the cultural gate between our two countries is the right thing to do.
In 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ascended to the throne. During the following year, the deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman laid out the National Transformation Plan (NTP) or, as it is more commonly known, Vision 2030, a progressive strategic plan comprising hundreds of governmental goals and policies, the most notable of which is the forthcoming initial public offering of shares of the state oil giant Saudi Aramco. The effect of an Aramco public offering is hard to gauge, not only because it is likely to be the largest IPO in history (estimates point to $2 trillion) but because of the necessary transparency. I think the media generally overemphasizes the economic issues brought on by the collapse of global gas prices because there is much data here that can be subjected to analysis. Far more abstract, and therefore difficult to gauge or discuss, are the societal and cultural aspects of a nation without a history of economic transparency, opening the books to a company that provides the vast majority of Saudi GDP. Aramco is most likely to be offered in London or New York, and I hope — for cultural reasons rather than economic — that KSA decides on New York.
What does this have to do with art? Everything. Culture is how we experience our society. Art in the West has been a powerful tool of social insight and critique — and the Saudis are now looking to American culture. They are the world’s largest per capita consumer of social media — they use Twitter and YouTube, for example, more than Americans do. And this is not hypothetical to me: Saudis I met became my Facebook “friends” and the public conversations among them and my Maine art “friends” began the first day I was in the kingdom. It ought to be noted that the government does filter and monitor internet use, which we can assume promotes self-censorship. Advocacy groups have ranked KSA, along with Iran and China, as among the ten most censored countries, but with KSA’s new openness policies, this too can be a place for positive change. When I looked at my own Facebook page from KSA on someone else’s account, I could read everything — and that matters.
The visit coincided with exhibitions featuring the “21,39” artists (the latitude/longitude-based name for a Saudi contemporary art movement) so we saw many exhibitions, some officially-funded and some not. What struck me about the art I saw in Jeddah was how the topics matched the political poignancy of American art. While art of social commentary can get a little tiring when it simply references “important” issues rather than offering perspective, this work certainly shattered my expectations. Of course, it also makes sense that this is the focus of these artists: We expect the content of new contemporary art to address issues legible and important to the public audience, and they don’t have a history of indigenous contemporary art to mine for the art-about-art aesthetic that has long been a part of European and American art culture.
For example, there was Qamar Abdoulmalik’s claw video game in which, for 2 Riyals (about 50 cents), you could win — through skill and luck — the “passport of your dreams.” The prizes were recreated passports of countries throughout the world labeled “Documents for Refugees.” There was a great deal of work, much of it very strong, that addressed, either directly or indirectly, the status of women in Saudi society. I was particularly impressed, however, by Dana Awartani’s combination of a floor sand-painted in tile-like geometrical details and the accompanying video of a woman sweeping a similarly-sanded floor. What surprised me was the prevalence of figurative art as well as the primacy of critique in their contemporary art idiom. This is not to say there isn’t strong work primarily dedicated to aesthetic or formal concerns, there is. Ahmed Angawi, for example, brings design, craft and conceptual concerns to his work. He uses Hejaz design logic and the modularity of beehives as his starting point for his hanging fine-craft flavored sculptures.
That “21,39” exhibition was corporately funded, but much of the strongest work I saw was in independent settings. In Pharan, Ahmed Mater and Arwa Al Neami’s studio, for example, I saw an excellent video work by Mohammed Alfaraj that included scenes of girls from very conservative families skipping school to go listen — and dance — to music at an oceanside public spot. Sarah Taibah’s work, for example, took on questions of schizophrenia in conjunction with the associated (let’s say, myth-conception) of multiple personality disorder: My takeaway was the idea that forcing disparate versions of public life and private life on individuals uses mental health to comment on social health.
The shifting status of women in Saudi society, to my surprise, is a topic from which no one I met shied away, including an Aramco executive, Nasser Nafisee, who hosted a conversation with our group and who then met with me personally for about an hour. Nafisee noted that “change is inevitable” and discussed the idea that Saudi
societal change will come in the form of “creating an information society.” He directly connects the landscape of cultural change to economic progress: Nafisee talks about “the benefits of supporting the emerging ‘knowledge economy’ through improved access to, arts and cultural activities as a catalyst for growth and innovation.” The idea is one Americans know well: With high unemployment among the young and a workforce that relies heavily on foreign labor, there are frustrated people who want to be productive members of society and they are watching too much Saudi capital being offshored — a social and economic double whammy. Nafisee’s hope is for KSA to become a first world economy, and that is something that cannot occur without massive societal change.
I mention here my conversation with Nafisee not only because he was responsive and engaged, but because while I have met and talked with dozens of Saudi artists and curators both in the kingdom and the US, it has been a far rarer thing to have a one on one sit-down with an Aramco Vice President who is willing to speak on the record about cultural change. Corporate interests
worldwide, whose goals are increasing profits, are often at odds with positive social and environmental objectives. It would be sensible to maintain a position of distrust when it comes to the positions of an oil company, but Nafisee asserts a path of common interest for the Saudi people, the government and Aramco. It’s not easy to trust promises of change in a kingdom largely funded by a single state-owned company. But positive change is undeniably happening, and in this case doing the right thing clearly makes economic sense for KSA. It’s in their interest to employ more Saudis — including younger Saudis (two-thirds of Saudis are 30 or younger) and women, who now only comprise 22 percent of the workforce.
Diversifying the Saudi economy will better protect against oil price drops and a better-educated
information society will ensure more technological and economic independence. My guess is that women over 40 will be able to drive in KSA within about a year. Still, the status of women is unacceptable by American standards, and we can assume there will be significant opposition within the country to any steps forward. Americans have long asserted that democracy is slow and messy, but the truth is that virtually all significant societal change is slow and messy. It is my ethic of American democracy that compels me to support a progressive approach to social policy. However small they may seem to some, I do not see this as “baby steps.” It is not always easy to see through the haze of difference to find and support change that appears so far behind where we want things to be. To do this, you need to look closely, and to look closely, you need to engage.
Nafisee is a sharp but eminently affable man who speaks perfect English since he studied, as so many Saudis do, in America. Saudi Arabia is a nation of about 30 million people but they send 150,000 young people to study in the United States every year — second only to China. This is the crux of the cultural connection: Those students return to the kingdom with a robust understanding of American culture and values — an unbreakable bridge. This also feeds the Saudis’ nuanced understanding of American politics and culture. It is, for example, not only how but why they have become top social media consumers. The Saudis are already engaging American culture; and we should not miss this opportunity to turn that into a two-way street.
Perspective about Saudi culture is not just a question of American ignorance: It would be an understatement to say that the kingdom hasn’t been a particularly open place. But it is now moving towards transparency — an important American value. One of the most haunting works of art I saw in Jeddah was by Manal Al-Dowayan, who has a Masters in Systems Analysis and Design from the Royal College of Arts in London. Her piece, Crash, features diagrams, data and images relating to how many women teachers die in horrible car crashes in KSA since they often have to be driven long distances to teach the children of remote villages. It’s a gruesome work, but it reaches deeply into controversial societal issues, such as the fact that women cannot now drive legally in the kingdom. A cursory consideration might see this work as overshadowing Arwa Al Neami’s images of women driving bumper cars in the exhibition Phantom Punch, but we must not underestimate the nuanced intelligence of these artists.
Al Neami’s images depict women in Niqab (the veil of the sartorial hijab that largely covers the face) and to get these images, the artist (allegedly) had to smuggle her camera into the park and take the photos without permission. (I say “allegedly” because I had no problem getting permission from women in Niqab to take their picture.) This gets interesting particularly when considering such an act in the US: It would not be strictly legal to show photos of individual Americans on bumper cars without their permission. But Neami’s subjects, of course, are unrecognizable — and that is by design.
My most unexpected insight had to do with being around women who wear Niqab. I hadn’t imagined the extent to which such dress is dynamic. From moment to moment as we moved from public to private spaces in galleries, buses, airports, hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, and so on, dress expectations change. It seemed every time I saw one of the leaders of the group (leadership seemed to default to women, at least in my limited experience, but it was among many scenarios and scenes), she was in varied states of being veiled — from complete Niqab to bare feet and skinny jeans while our group ran up and down sand dunes near Aramco’s Well 7 at Dammam — the site where commercially significant supplies of oil were first discovered in KSA.
The art I saw in KSA was not afraid of being critical of society — and that is a great thing for Saudis, Sunni societies and the entire global community. (This is not to say that Saudis have rights equal to our First Amendment, but the conversations are real and, most importantly, they are moving towards openness.) Saudi society is not monolithic: There are differences and debates at every level. And the right to dissent and debate freely are values we should support. I was reminded of this when I saw a work at a show more geared to emerging and student artists. It was a bench in KSA green with three different chair backs to it. My initial take was to see it in international terms, but the Niqab-wearing artist, Manai Bahanshal, explained it was about factionalization within Saudi society. We may take dissent as a negative, like Ms. Bahanshal, but it can also lead to dialogue if the parties share her goal of conflict resolution. However subtle, this is a model for a progressive society.
What I took away from my Saudi experience is the idea that the U.S. should be encouraging open gates — not, say, shuttering them with travel bans. What I see in KSA is that American culture — highlighted by social media but punctuated by art — is helping Saudis move their society forward on many levels.This is in America’s interest on many levels as well. Stronger economic partners lead to more robust trade. Stronger cultural partners lead to more robust discourse and dialogue. Things are changing and changing quickly in Saudi Arabia. Artists are part of that, even in a place like Maine. This is our Saudi moment: We should continue to build this road and keep it moving in the right direction.
Daniel Kany is an editor of the Maine Arts Journal: The UMVA Quarterly as well as the weekly art critic for the Portland Press Herald | Maine Sunday Telegram.