Ahmed Mater’s images of modern Saudi Arabia

Sunday 24/04/2016
Golden Hour, 2011

Washington - When visitors enter Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Ma­ter, on exhibit at the Smithsonian Insti­tution’s Sackler Gallery in Washing­ton, they embark on a journey. It is a solitary one, no matter how many people are there along the way.

The haunting nature of Mater’s photography and videos and the meditative drumming in the dis­tance call for a pensive, even rever­ent, mood.

Before venturing too far, visitors had best tune into Mater’s deeply spiritual critique of modern Saudi society. To connect, a visitor should linger before Antenna at the exhib­it’s entrance. Its neon glow reflects down the hall onto a photograph of rooftops in Mecca’s slums. He ad­mits the effect is serendipitous.

“Standing on the dusty rooftop of my family’s traditional house in the south-west corner of Saudi Arabia, I would lift a battered TV antenna as far as I could towards the evening sky,” Mater said in comments post­ed on the museum’s website. “Like many of my generation in Saudi Arabia, I was seeking ideas, music, poetry — a glimpse of a different kind of life.”

Mater, 36, is a practicing medical doctor and world-renowned artist based in Jeddah. With the Sackler exhibit, he is also the first contem­porary Saudi artist to have a solo show at a major museum in the United States.

Through landscape photogra­phy and film, much of it aerial and focused on Mecca, Mater explores the social, political and economic changes his country has undergone in recent years.

The show includes The Empty Land, 15 photos of abandoned plac­es in the desert; Desert of Pharan, studies of reconstructed pilgrim­age sites and the transformation of Mecca; and Ashab al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, a row of nine wooden slide viewers focused on overlaid archival slides of life in and around Riyadh.

Between the first and last works, visitors experience a trip few non- Muslim Westerners, or even Saudi citizens, ever take, except virtually. Mater received layers of permis­sions to photograph and film parts of the pilgrimage and the unprece­dented building boom in Mecca. He spent a year in Mecca to befriend la­bourers, many of them immigrants, who compete for jobs they find reli­giously significant.

One of the most stunning pieces in the show is Jabril, a still from Mater’s video Leaves Fall in All Seasons. In it, a Bangladeshi con­struction worker hangs on a golden crescent high above Mecca, as an unseen crane guides him and his charge into place atop a clock tower — not a minaret. Mater said Jabril, or Gabriel, is “like an angel bringing a warning” of the impossible scale of modern cities, destruction of the old and consequent loss of mean­ing.

From Jabril, visitors go backward in the pilgrimage to Mina, never ac­tually named, to two aerial studies of the human highways that funnel worshipers to the jamarat pillars.

Judging from conversations in the gallery, many American view­ers would profit from a handout on the haj. With more knowledge, they might notice and question the pil­grims’ green-and-blue sun umbrel­las, emblazoned with the names of sponsoring corporations. With a razor-sharp lens, Mater documents the commercial infiltration of the holy from above.

The centrepiece, Golden Hour, reveals the whole. The preceding shots of Mecca are details in a huge construction project that surrounds the Great Mosque.

Dominating the skyline is a com­mercial complex, topped by a gold­en crescent and announced by an­tenna-like cranes. Mountains and an Ottoman fortress were levelled to make room for luxury hotels and a mall whose tenants include Star­bucks.

“It’s not on a human scale,” Ma­ter said. “I’m very worried about Mecca becoming an example for all Muslims, 1 billion worldwide, that the construction is changing the message of Islam and human spir­itual values, not just in Islam.”

When asked if he found his work healing, he said: “Art and art pro­cessing are very holistic. Creating dialogue and communication is part of community medicine… in practice. Cities are very important in public health, as in dealing with crowd management and crowd community health during the pil­grimage.”

Past a surreal montage of surveil­lance photos of Mecca, including a shot of illegal pilgrims, there is Ghost, a video of drummers at a tra­ditional wedding south of Mecca.

The human, cosmopolitan char­acter, the vulnerability of the city returns before Mater’s latest series is encountered. The last slide view is positively Dali-esque: An old TV stands in the desert. Telephone poles line a dirt road that disap­pears in the distance. Again, anten­naes are guides with a full moon set in an ominous blue sky.

Reminded of the exhibit’s title, visitors travel “symbolically” out of the show, alone and burdened with questions.