Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi explores history through traditional architecture

Zahrah Al Ghamdi infuses art with the poetics of emotion and memory.
Saturday 03/08/2019
“Mycelium Running” by Zahrah Al Ghamdi at the Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. (Mohamed Somji. Courtesy: Jameel Arts Centre)
Concept of memory. “Mycelium Running” by Zahrah Al Ghamdi at the Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai. (Mohamed Somji. Courtesy: Jameel Arts Centre)

DUBAI - Described as land art, Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s work explores memory and history through traditional architecture as a medium in itself or through the actual assemblage or building.

Critics link her work to the traditional Asiri architecture in Al-Baha, the village she grew up in south-western Saudi Arabia. That background plays an integral role in her practice. She assembles earth, clay, rocks, leather and water in a laborious and meticulous process in her site-specific work.

Ghamdi earned an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts at King Abdulaziz University and a master’s degree specialising in Contemporary Craft at Coventry University in England, where she also obtained a doctorate in Design and Visual Art.

In Dubai, her work “Mycelium Running,” a site-specific work in which leather forms spill out across the gallery and into an adjacent courtyard, is being exhibited as part of a group show “Second Hand” at the Jameel Arts Centre. The exhibition runs through November 23.

“Second Hand” is drawn from the Art Jameel Collection and includes works collected in the past 15 years, said Jameel Arts Centre Director Antonia Carver.

“Zahrah’s work is the most recent and most site-specific — indeed, she created it for and in the Jameel — and its organic nature really reflects and embodies the Dubai Creek and the desert gardens outside the gallery windows,” Carver said.

“The exhibition explores the diverse, original, highly intuitive ways in which artists use material and Zahrah is a master of textural transformation. She works and reworks leather into these organic shapes — each one is a unique work of craft and expression and, together, they create a fascinating body that appears to have a life of its own.”

Carver said that, since discussions began about “Mycelium Running,” Ghamdi has taken on the role of representing Saudi Arabia at the Venice Biennale and gained international attention “but her work remains rooted in her home, referencing the traditional Asiri architecture in Al-Baha.”

Ghamdi’s “After Illusion” representing Saudi Arabia at its second national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which runs through November 24, is inspired by an ancient Arabic poem on homecoming.

Unlike other land artists, Ghamdi tends to approach a subject by infusing it with the poetics of emotion and memory. She admits that her work “is saturated with feeling and emotion.”

Despite the different production processes that her artworks require, they all attempt “to embody the concept of memory.”

“My work explores the emotions of identity, history, loss and storytelling. I have been lucky enough to observe some people’s reactions to my work throughout my career and, generally speaking, the work tends to evoke those emotions, which is exactly what I’m looking for,” she said.

Anyone looking at her work characterised by a kind of detail-oriented materiality will say very feminine aesthetics are on display. Ghamdi admits that it is the case and that it is a conscious approach on her part.

“I try to unleash my emotions, so to speak, during the conception and production process, allowing them to guide me as I create,” she said. “Because of the extent to which my work is connected to my emotions, once the work is produced, it will forever remain an essential part of me.”

Elaborating on her most recent works — “Mycelium Running,” “After Illusion” and “Inanimate Village” — Ghamdi pointed out the connections between them.

“The connection between my works comes from the inspiration behind them and my general artistic process,” she said. “You can trace how I engage with the notion of embodied memory in all of my work.

“Additionally, my work is inspired by history and my exploration of urban architecture and traditions, especially in Saudi Arabia, and, throughout my career, I have tried to translate the concepts of identity and culture through my work.

Ghamdi is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Art and Design at King Abdulaziz University and her work has been exhibited in many galleries in the Gulf region and the United Kingdom.

Speaking about her impressions of the young artistic talent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Ghamdi said: “Saudi Arabia is currently going through massive changes and a revolution in the art scene is quite evident.

“This has helped propel a number of artists to the surface of our cultural scene. Many of these artists are talented, passionate about their art, hard-working and truly doing their best to improve at what they are doing. This, without a doubt, will positively contribute to the overall development of the artistic talent in the country.”

“I have learnt a lot from both Saudi- and UAE-based artists and their various experiences,” she said.

“Academically, I’ve been focusing on my research. I try to find a balance between my focus on my art and my academic research and try to improve both. I would like to start writing my own scientific art-based research papers and help push the educational standards at the university level even higher.

“I am also very focused on my students and trying to help them improve their creative process, develop their skills and become the best artists they can be.”