US exhibition of Saudi art aims to share ideas, test perceptions

Sunday 25/06/2017
Big score. Ayman Yossri Daydban, the current artist in residence at the Arab American National Museum poses for a photo, on June 14. (Arab American National Museum)

Detroit - A US exhibition featur­ing the works of about 40 Saudi artists aims to share their expressions, foster conversations and challenge conceptions of life in the conservative Islamic country.
Epicenter X: Saudi Contempo­rary Art is to open July 8, with an expected run of approximately three months, at the Arab Ameri­can National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It features photographic and video installations as well as murals exploring themes of urbani­sation, globalisation, religion and the effect of US culture on a restric­tive Saudi society that has loosened somewhat in the areas of arts and entertainment.
It is among the first and largest US exhibitions featuring contem­porary Saudi artists, some of whom have had their work shown at the Smithsonian Institution, Los An­geles County Museum of Art and elsewhere. It is also a big score for the Smithsonian-affiliated Arab museum in a Detroit suburb that can lay claim to being the capital of Arab America.
“I think there’s a lot changing in Saudi Arabia right now,” museum Director Devon Akmon said. “What I find really interesting is obviously the role of the artists in society, re­gardless of where they are. They are chroniclers of our time. They bear witness. They reflect. They speak about contemporary issues. That’s exactly what many of the artists in this show are doing.”
Themes explored in the exhibit include urbanisation and changing landscapes in cities and the effect of religion on society. Akmon said many Americans are neither “at­tuned to” those issues in Saudi Ara­bia nor aware that artists are “giv­ing voice to these discussions.”
Akmon said he and his colleagues worked on the exhibit with the Saudi-based King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, known as Ithra. He said museum officials were clear in conversations that they would be curating the exhibit and had “a message to share that could not be interfered with.” The museum ex­pressed its desire to display a wide array of art representing a diversity of artists, including women.
“It was a very collaborative pro­cess. They were very open to how we wanted to portray this,” he said.
Among the pieces that will be on display is “Digital Spirituality” by Amr Alngmah, which places the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca — Is­lam’s most sacred site — in the mid­dle of a circuit board. Akmon calls it a commentary on “how technology is becoming a religion in our lives.”
Another artist involved in the exhibition is Ayman Yossri Day­dban, who is the museum’s artist in residence. He will have three pho­tographic works in the exhibit and will be staging two solo shows. Day­dban, whose last name is Arabic for “watchman”, has been encouraged to use the museum’s exhibits and archives and surrounding commu­nities as his “studio,” as he creates or collaborates on numerous multi­media projects.
“I have had many residencies, in­cluding in Dubai, Berlin and Paris,” Daydban said with the help of an interpreter. “This is the first time when I feel like I am becoming younger and I find it very refresh­ing. This residency makes me feel brave to ask questions.”
Although Saudi restrictions on freedom and ban on women driving often grab headlines, Akmon said his visit to the kingdom opened his eyes to the burgeoning, expressive art scene in Jeddah featuring men and women. He said he hopes that visitors to the exhibit experience that as well.
“It was essentially discovery, get­ting an introduction to some of the ideas of the Saudi people that was unfiltered, so to speak,” he said. “That’s exactly what people will see when they come to the gallery, a range of ideas and philosophies emerging.”
(The Associated Press)