Amongst the glut of galleries, institutions, art fairs and other such initiatives that have been steadily gaining ground throughout the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has stood apart. While steeped in history, the largest country in the GCC, has not seen the sort of large-scale, cultural, press-friendly, mega-projects that neighbouring Qatar and the UAE, for example, have invested in, although projects such as the upcoming King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture may soon see this changing. For those unfamiliar with The Kingdom, it can be a daunting place – so to host an art event, in a country often seen as a sort of mystery wrapped up in an enigma, is not just important in showing Saudi to the world, but in opening up a platform for emerging artists within the Kingdom itself, to interact with the world.
As such, and with the majority of the Kingdom’s population under the age of 30, never has it been more important to educate and inspire young audiences. Or so believes the Saudi Art Council—a non-profit, non-governmental initiative headed by prominent arts and culture patrons within the Kingdom, including Faisal Tamer, Mohammad Hafiz, Sara Bin Laden, Hamza Serafi, Basma Al-Sulaiman, Aya Alireza and Raneem Farsi, among others. The resulting 21,39 Jeddah Arts, has become an annual event held under the patronage of HRH Princess Jawaher Bint Abdulaziz Al-Saud, President and Founder of the Al-Mansouria Foundation, focused around a main exhibition and collateral events in and around the city. It was not without reason during 21,39’s 2015 edition that Serafi remarked upon just “how emotionally intelligent and aware this young generation [of Saudis] is.”
Previous iterations of 21,39, however, have run the risk of feeling slightly ephemeral, as international curators and journalists fly in for a few days for opening week only to leave again shortly thereafter. The question has hovered in the air: once the VIPs are gone, just who is the audience? In its fourth edition, 2017 curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath of Art Reoriented have decided upon an answer: the artist. And not only that, but long-term engagement is now the name of the game. “Our role, ideally, should be more that of facilitators and educators,” says Bardaouil. “The idea was always to put the artists at the centre – that was very important for us.”
Bardaouil and Fellrath entitled this year’s main exhibition Safar, Arabic for ‘travel’, with the theme echoed in the event’s geographic arrangement (held across three venues: the Gold Moor Mall as a journey into the present; Al-Balad, the city’s old town and a journey into the past; andKing Abdullah Economic City, a trip into the future). Safar encompasses numerous rich linguistic and semantic aspects. According to Bardouil, ‘safar’ doesn’t just convey the sense of moving from one point to another, it also conveys the process by which one explores and learns certain things about oneself, the other, and the places one has left behind, as well as the places one is yet to arrive at. “It’s really about exploration, discovery, learning, education.”
This was also evident in the travel programme arranged for six young artists (Majid Angawi, Marwah Al-Mugait, Abdullah Al-Othman, Bayan Abdullateef, Mohammed Al-Faraj and Reem Al-Nasser), which saw them travel to Berlin, Gwangju and Seoul. Here, they visited biennials, artist and design studios, museum collections and galleries. “We wanted these artists to be able to reflect on their own practice through exploring all these different approaches to art,” explains Bardaouil. “To have them thinking and writing about art and travelling was integral to the process of putting Safar together. Art becomes a vehicle for travel, a mirror through which you explore yourself and the place in which you exist.” In total, Safar featured works by 24 artists – 16 Saudi and eight international, including Manal Al-Dowayan, Moath Al-Ofi, Nasser Al-Salem, Shirin Neshat, and Anri Sala, among others.
With all works in the main exhibition specially commissioned, it was important to Bardaouil and Fellrath that the outreach of 21,39 would expand beyond the confines of its opening week alone. An Art Lounge allows for a space for discussion, while events dating back to November 2016 and extending until the end of its run in May 2017 will ensure that engagement is ongoing, and a Forum (‘al-muntada’) comprises talks, panels, film screenings, seminars and workshops are joined by intensive 12-week courses in drawing and painting taught by professors from the University of Jeddah, open to all. “We wanted to create something that could work as a foundational course in the first year of art school,” says Bardaouil, “to focus on the importance of learning, skill and knowledge.” Running well beyond the opening week, The Forum Lounge (al-majlis) allows for exchange, and The Forum Art Encounters (al-multaqah) is a series of alternating bi-weekly film screenings held in conjunction with the British Council. Elsewhere, an exhibition of new media at the King Abdulla Economic City has introduced eight international artists to local audiences, installed to museum-quality standards within the yet-to-be-kitted raw shells of an upcoming retail area, with works by the likes of Neshat, Sala and Douglas Gordon.
“We want 21,39 to become a place where artists have the opportunity to develop new work, learn about each other, discuss their practice and meet other creatives,” says Bardaouil. “Art, for most of these artists comes from a very serious place, a very committed position,” concludes Bardaouil. “It’s about reflecting on life-changing issues in terms of both developing work formalistically and aesthetically but also in terms of having work mature in the way it tackles all these very serious topics. It has been a privilege to witness the evolution of these artists, and see how they took on so many different angles, positions, and reflected on so many possible ways of shifting the perspective both in terms of how they approach their practice and how they could actually bring other people to think about certain things within the confines, challenges as well as advantages of being in Saudi”