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The Spectacular Rise of Saudi Contemporary Art

The map of the contemporary art market is going to need an update. After the Venice Biennale, Basel Art, Frieze London and Documenta, Saudi Arabia is where emerging artists are gaining publicity. As an international showcase for a market that has experienced exponential growth, here are the places and people you absolutely can’t miss.

An explosion of Chinese art characterized the first decade of the 2000s, with a proliferation of art and culture centers in the great Chinese cities. The West has been seduced, notably by the famous Ai Weiwei, who was named by Art Review magazine as the most powerful figure in art in 2011.

Since then, the Middle East, and particularly Saudi Arabia, has found a unprecedented place in the contemporary art scene. 2018 will be the year that the Kingdom will open its doors and reveal its talents.

As a pillar of Vision 2030, the program of the country’s modernization initiated by the Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salmane, contemporary art has become a priority for the new Kingdom. In order to reach this goal, the government has announced $64 billion dedicated to culture and entertainment over the next ten years; it’s a political boon that will allow young artists to show the world their talents.

1. Ahmed Mater & MiSK Art Institute

As a precursor and leader of Saudi contemporary art, Ahmed Mater has already made a world tour with an exposition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

At 39, the doctor, who grew up in the mountainous region of Abha, in the south of the country, has been able to recount the transformation of Mecca with tact and a bit of irony, through a striking photo series that’s made a world tour: Desert of Pharan (2011-2016).

Today, he heads the MiSK Art Institute, and represents the voice of young Saudi artists. “The young people of Saudi Arabia are experimenting with art and trying to push for a better future. They are trying to make a bridge between Saudi and other countries,” explained Ahmed Mater in the New York Times in 2013.

From the MOMA in New York, Ahmed Mater announced in January 2018 that a center dedicated to contemporary art will be constructed in Riyadh soon. The architects selected to manage the project are the Italian, Michele de Lucchi (aMDL), and the British agency Skene Catling de la Pena, in collaboration with Factum Arte, the artistic production agency managed by Adam Lowe. And fittingly, New York will be where the Arab Art Festival will be launched next October.

2. La Biennale of Venice

As the epicenter of contemporary artistic life, the Venetian lagoon has invited the world’s biggest artists and architects to flaunt their creations since 1893. This year will be a very special year for the Kingdom: for the first time since its founding, Saudi Arabia will participate in the Biennale with its own pavillion. The theme will be Freespace.

3. Jeddah 21,39

Jeddah 21,39 is an exposition which takes place in Jeddah each year, on the western coast of the Kingdom. The curator of the 4th edition in 2018, Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, explains: “ It is an exhibition that focuses on presenting the work of young and emerging Saudi artists, but also international artists, in an attempt to advance dialogue and conversation between contemporary practices in the Kingdom.”

The Arab World Institute in Paris, as well as the Palais de Tokyo, the Institut Français, the Cité Internationale des Arts de Paris, the FRAC PACA, as well as representatives from the École des Beaux-Arts of Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Lyon, the Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie d’Aubusson in Dubai, as well as French exhibition curators were part of the delegation visiting Jeddah 21,39 this year.

4. Gharem Studio

Created by the brothers Ajlan and Abdulnasser Gharem, this studio is located in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It acts as an incubator of artists and ideas, and receives a number of European visitors.

5. Edge of Arabia

If Riyadh represents the institutional and financial capital of the Kingdom, and Jeddah the cultural and historic one, you’ll need to scale the mountains in the south of the country, in the Asir region, to find the story of an artistic movement that has been driving the entire Saudi artistic scene. Edge of Arabia was created in 2003, after a meeting of the British artist Stephen Stapleton, Ahmed Mater, and Abdulnasser Gharem.

Far from the bustle of the big cities, this collective has launched a dialogue with Western artists. Today, Edge of Arabia lets young Saudi talents go abroad and complete artist residencies in New York.

6. Hayy Creative Hub

Community Cameel is the social organization that belongs to the Saudi group Abdul Latif Jammel. Its president is the very charming Hassan Jameel, the boyfriend of the American star Rihanna.

Situated in the north of the city of Jeddah, Art Jameel (a branch of Community Jamel dedicated to art) has launched the site Hayy Creative Hub, a 17,000 m2 cultural space. The space, designed by the Dubai agency Ibda, will open in 2019.

7. King Abdullah Aziz Centre for World Culture

Dhahran is known for being the city that hosts the Saudi Aramco headquarters, but starting in 2017 it has also become the capital of culture and architecture.

The King Abdullah Aziz Centre for World Culture was conceived by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta. It’s part of a project from Saudi Aramco Oil Company to promote cultural development in the region.

The center includes an auditorium, a cinema, a library, an exposition hall, and a museum. The library contains more than 200,000 freely accessible books.

8. The Athr & Hafez galleries

The Athr & Hafez Galleries are the showcases of the artistic scene in Jeddah.

Launched in 2009 by Hamza Serafi and Mohammed Hafiz, the Athr gallery is a 18,000m2 space located in the heart of Jeddah. The gallery represents emerging artists of the Kingdom, as well as the entire world.

The Hafez gallery has hosted some of the most innovative artistic creations of the Kingdom. By placing value on the renewal of the Saudi identity, the gallery, named after proprietor Qaswra Hafez, not only constitutes a launch pad for local artists, but is also a bridge connecting the cultures of the Kingdom to those of the entire world.