Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene is in a period of flux and several kinds of art life have emerged from an increasingly fertile cultural soil – events, initiatives and ideas of all ranges and colours. One of these projects is ‘Young Saudi Artists’, held since 2011. To the engaged observer of the Saudi art scene, this event contains some signs of a dynamic cultural future.
In its second edition this year in February 2012, the Young Saudi Artists is beginning to take on a character of its own as an art event and is emerging as a spirited amateur art expo. In the nascent art landscape of Saudi Arabia this event serves two purposes: it diversifies the range of cultural projects by offering an alternative kind of art experience, casual and more democratized in mood; but it also harnesses a loose creative output, which might wither or vanish in need of timely mentorship and encouragement. In the wider international art market, the Saudi art scene is phenomenal in its rise but it is still fledgling. It is grappling with the eveyday challenges of the art market, the realities and forces of demand and supply, and the constant guarantee of artistic produce. It is with an eye on the future that this platform was created to nurture this embryonic art life, rising to life swiftly but haphazardly.
Who are these young Saudi artists? With very few exceptions, these are mostly youngsters falling in an age group of 16 to late twenties. They are graduates in graphic design or other disciplines, high-schoolers ‘on a break for self-discovery’, professional or amateur photographers, doodlers, bloggers, and part-time creatives who have pursued some form of creative activity for some time (related or unrelated to their professions). They have only recently found the opportunity for a significant and irreversible visibility both at home and abroad. Activities and forums of expression, exhibitions, talent-hunts, and competitions for amateurs were created only as early as a couple of years ago (as off-shoots of the larger umbrella of Edge of Arabia) and have caught on like wildfire since. These newly created opportunities are the motors that spurred these youngsters towards performance and recognition. What these initiatives, among them ‘Young Saudi Artists’, offers them is an initial walk through the first stages of preparedness, so that those who have the grit can go on and prove their mettle. The work that ‘Young Saudi Artists’ showcases is still undefined, indistinct in form or prospect, and calls for timely mentorship and nurture rather than skepticism and abandonment.
Last year and this year, around 23 artists participated in each show. Although some of the participants are not Saudi by nationality, they live here and have absorbed and interacted with the local culture to some degree, so their voice matters as much as others in any portrayal of the Saudi experience. Unlike a formalized, rigorous art exhibition, here a simple participatory call is sent out along with a deadline. In coming years, the organizers might match a higher level of participant readiness by introducing more stringent restrictions into the equation, and raising the quotient of challenge, but for now the only curatorial principal is creativity and the will to participate. A lot of the artists don’t exhibit works specifically created for the show, but works from their repertoire which they had exhibited in the recent past. In that sense, for some participants, the event was not an instigator, but a first formal and public show-case.
The subject of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia and a lot of the activity that takes place around it is largely a question of creating new attitudes of recognition, appreciation and responsibility towards the subject of art. This challenge was valid as much for the artists as for the audiences. For the artists, some of whom have never stepped foot inside a professional work environment, the nervousness of a first public performance, the pressure of deadlines and the semi-official ‘act’ of the opening night, were all first-time experiences and therefore significant challenges. Some of the young participants had their families and friends by their side for support. As the energy of the opening nights proved, the artists genuinely cared not just for the art works and the technicalities, but also for the larger purpose of the event and their role in its midst as ambassadors. At this point in time, you cannot be a young artist in Saudi Arabia without feeling a sense of responsibility and leadership towards society. In the dialogue of contemporary art in the Kingdom, people are beginning to listen and engage, and the artist currently stands as an agent embodying several active roles – agent provocateur, role model, leader, historian. He is invested with an irrational power, and with this great power comes great responsibility. Beginning to not just recognize, but savour and fully embrace this responsibility would be a natural first step for these artists. Without a doubt, they have held up their end really well. Some of them had to work around personal setbacks; one artist was in a car accident and bed-bound just before the exhibition – he had to display an older work instead of the new work he had planned and showed up at the opening nights with his left arm in a cast; another artist lost her father some time before the exhibition; while another artist’s artwork was severely damaged minutes before the public showing, but none of them cowered or backed out. This dogged determination, and the knack for maneuver around obstacles are all attitudes that will serve them well, for the road for the artist in Saudi Arabia, although starting to emerge and in full view, is far from easy.
‘Young Saudi Artists’ is also a great barometer for what art will be significant in the lives of an average Saudi today. Interestingly, on 18th February, the very day that Young Saudi Artists opened in the Athr Gallery in Jeddah, Edge of Arabia, the first comprehensive retrospective of contemporary Saudi art in the Kingdom itself (several comprehensive group shows have been hosted annually in other places in the world, like Berlin, Venice, and Dubai, to name a few) closed elsewhere in the city. It had gone on for a month and it went by the title ‘We need to talk’. In releasing art into the country’s bloodstream, the metaphor of a long overdue conversation was constantly emphasized. Unsurprisingly, then, this metaphor was literally enacted on the gallery space at YSA. The floor was punctuated by groups of artists and people in easy exchange. Most of the artists made it a point to be present for the second night as well. To all appearances, the call for engagement that was resounded by ‘Edge of Arabia: We Need to Talk’ had already begun to be heeded. The attendees were people from all ages and walks of life – a gloriously random mix, with a loose common concern. Pretty much like the event. This very randomness and the spirit of inclusiveness that is its raison d’etre is, to a large extent, part of the event’s charm. The eclectic nature of the event and its range of appeal was mirrored in the diversity of the collectors it attracted – from the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Saudi Art, a small but powerful private museum in Amsterdam to young as well as seasoned collectors and corporate collections.
The event is embryonic, and its contours are sketchy. It’s hard to pin it down and comfortably ascribe it to a category, but its aura is magnetic: for those tuned in to the promise of things, it maps and measures some very telling parameters.
Adapted from a write-up originally published on Jeddah Blog. (Link here http://jeddahblog.livejournal.com/74479.html)