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Stéphane Lacroix: “There’s an Explosion of Art in Saudi Arabia”

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Visiting the “Incense Route” exhibition in Paris, Stéphane Lacroix, associate professor at Sciences Po, shares his views on Saudi art as one that is connected, youthful and in full bloom.

As a researcher in political science, specialized in the Arab world, Stéphane Lacroix regularly travels to Saudi Arabia for field studies, and therefore enjoys an up-close view of the recent and rapid evolutions on the Saudi art scene.

With the onset of social media and the gradual liberalization of the country, he explains that the growth of art has probably “never been this important and impactful: Saudis are jumping into artistic expression in scores”.

He spokes with KAWA during his visit to the “Incense Route” exhibition.

What do you think of the Saudi art scene today?

Stéphane Lacroix: There has been an unprecedented artistic explosion of art in Saudi Arabia, this is true: there have never been this many artists. And we’re talking about connected artists, as are the Saudi youth, who come from a country with the highest density of social network users per inhabitant. We have artists there that act in tune with global artistic trends, which is very interesting. They are jumping into artistic expression in scores.

Is this a recent movement, or is there a history to Saudi Arabian art?

Stéphane Lacroix: It’s not totally recent. On one hand, classical Islamic art has always existed, especially in the coastal regions of Mecca and Medina. The presence of holy sites creates a noticeable relationship with respect to ancient Islamic history, which ensures a continuity in traditional Islamic expression. And in Saudi Arabia, we have seen a new type of contemporary art emerge since the 60s and 70s, which resembles more of what the rest of the world was producing. Battles were actually waged in the 80s and the 90s, because art touches on societal issues and can be seen as subversive. Artists took on issues which may have bothered the more conservative people. Although, it was probably these artists parents that witnessed these battles, and it is true that today, it has become more mainstream.

Are there specificities to contemporary Saudi art?

I am not a specialist in Art History, but it’s we do see things in Saudi contemporary art which resonates with the contemporary art found elsewhere. As with all cultures, they draw upon society, memory, themes related to their culture. In Saudi Arabia, the topic of religion is examined in particular, and in the “Incense Route” there’s a certain number of works which cover religion. One which I found particularly interesting was the one in which there’s 28 faces that have been filmed. 28 faces displayed in a grid on a wall, and we see each person react for a few seconds as someone talks to them about them about God. And the reactions are very different. One can imagine that, at a certain time, it would have been tougher to bring up such a topic.