A Saudi Artist | فنان سعودي


“Life is a daring adventure or nothing”, in front of al-Sweidi court in Riyadh.

“Saudi art is trending”… perhaps it is on Twitter or glossy art magazines. Self-identified ‘Saudi art’ has indeed been increasing in popularity both in production and reception. Galleries are multiplying to support young ‘Saudi artists’ that are creating a “flourishing art scene”. It is undeniable that the young generation has been increasingly aesthetically conscious and exploring modern and contemporary art. While I disagree that art is something that trends, I can’t argue with the claims that the self-identified movement or ‘Saudi art’ phenomenon is trending. That this occurrence is“pushing boundaries” and “challenging taboos”, no it is not. There may be a degree of challenging socially-accepted norms or provoking thought on a cultural or social problem in one work or another, and for particular audiences. But the most controversial works provoking drastic reactions from certain audiences still remain kosher enough to be exhibited, and of course well-received internationally. So in my honest opinion, so-called ‘contemporary art’ in Saudi has done more PR than art. Which is why I have reservations for defining ‘Saudi art’.

There are certain individuals within these contemporary art spaces, however, that have genuinely demonstrated the qualities of an artist. One such artist is Abdullah Al-Othman. Actively experimenting, inquiring, and engaging his audience in the process, Abdullah interrupts the everyday life requiring thought and sight beyond the ordinary routine. This to me is the most pure form of art. It’s disruptive, dynamic, spirited, and doesn’t fall into a particular artistic style or category.

This is of course not to undermine the benefits of exhibitions, art festivals and gallery spaces, as they do play a significant role in our acquisition and sharing of knowledge and culture. But such context for art display serves different purposes and addresses specific audiences, thus it can never be equated or compared with that in the public sphere. If there is anything Saudi needs desperately, it is not more private art spaces and galleries, rather having more dialectical interactions and establishing social relations within the public space. Though these engaging encounters are transient and short-lived, they draw more attention and connection to our surroundings where a sense of belonging and meaning can be reclaimed. Lacking this type of conversation is what makes us have no critical relationship with our own public life.
The words of the work in the above photo, placed on some wired fence in Riyadh read “conditional security”. There are countless wire-netted fences enclosing private properties across the country. During 2012 the word shubook which means ‘nets’ became widely used in reference to the appropriation of territories by skirting them with these wired fences. This land grab can only be done by Saudi district officials, i.e. Saudi royalty. Shubook trended on Twitter and became the official hash tag in citing information relating to public and private properties. Perhaps it is not immediately understood how the words “conditional security” allude to shubook, let alone for a passerby unmindful of that conversation. But it’s precisely this type of questioning and thinking that makes the art.

It’s a sort of philosophical interrogation of the present. When the individualistic expression of the artist enters the public realm, it becomes part of the collective production of culture. Saudi culture is difficult to read and touch because it is private or lies within isolated spaces. These are the boundaries that need to be pushed. Having designated places for sharing our thoughts and experiences creates a limitation not only in our creativity and imagination, but more importantly our consciousness.

The Internet and social media do not offer a solution to this problem, for they can never shape our collective identity, attitudes, and ideals the same way as human activities and interactions in the everyday life. I can blog about Abdullah Al-Othman, tweet about shubook, and share photos of graffiti on Instagram. But none of that can substitute anexperience.


“The search for an automobile involved in the failure of a girl’s heart” – a performance in Riyadh streets.

In Abdullah’s own words, “Beauty is not the result of a simple formula. The most beautiful things usually emerge from the periphery, the margins, and the least expected places.” If there is anything I can claim about Saudi art it is just that, and to which the likes of Abdullah are making a meaningful contribution. Art and beauty are not trends, they are part of our everyday life.

Posted 26th June by 

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