Whither Saudi Art?

Ahmed Mater - Waqf Illumination III

Ahmed Mater, Waqf Illumination III, 2009. Gold leaf, tea, pomegranate, Dupont Chinese ink, and offset X-Ray film print on paper. 155 x 105 cm. Beauchamp Club Collection.

The founding and activities of Saudi Arabia’s MiSK Art Institute ought to be good news for art lovers. As the first institute of its kind in the formerly arch-conservative Saudi kingdom, it aims to support emerging Saudi artists and increase their interaction and visibility both within and beyond the kingdom. Operating under the auspices of the non-profit MiSK Foundation established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it is part of his bold plan to bring Saudi Arabia into the 21st century by educating its youth and fostering their creative potential. Who could quarrel with such a laudable project?

The problem, as in many laudable projects, lies in the execution. Sadly, the MiSK’s nascent efforts mainly reveal the stranglehold that postmodernist pseudo art—and the confused thinking behind it—has on the global artworld.

The Work of Ahmed Mater

Not surprisingly, the person chosen to head the institute is the Saudi who has probably gotten the most attention in the international artworld, Ahmed Mater [more]—an exhibition of whose work is now at the Brooklyn Museum (Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys). Trained as a physician, not an artist, Mater combines elements of both spheres in his work. One of his most acclaimed pieces is his Illuminations series, a part of which is pictured above.

A website featuring Mater’s Illuminations XI & XII bills itself as a platform “for significant works from some of the world’s most engaging and challenging contemporary artists,” which allows each work “to speak boldly for itself.” But do Mater’s Illuminations—consisting of human X-ray images framed by traditional Arabic decorative and calligraphic motifs inspired by Qur’anic manuscripts—really speak for themselves? Or do we need the dense verbal explanations provided by Mater and others to understand his intention? Of his X-Ray – Talisman 3 (acquired by the British Museum in 2009), for example, curator Venetia Porter concludes:

through these works, Mater illuminates Islamic tradition to show its close relationship to the faith-driven and spiritual, making manifest a dynamic complexity that has been diminished and negated by the strictures of contemporary religious systems.

Really? Such verbiage cannot dispel my spontaneous response to the works themselves. I’m simply repelled by the jarring juxtaposition of its disparate visual elements, and have no desire to linger long enough to find out what they are supposed to mean. On that count, they have failed what is for me the first test of a successful work of art: to capture and hold one’s attention on its own terms, without the crutch of verbal explanation.

Writing about Mater’s X-Ray 2003 (the first of his X-ray pieces), Linda Komaroff, curator of Islamic art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, tellingly declares that “it may be up to future generations of art historians to determine which heading or label to apply to [Mater’s] art.” Yet she maintains that he “demonstrates the very special ability to speak in a universal voice.” Speaking in a “universal voice” implies communicating on its own in purely visual terms, however. Owing in part to his failure to do that, I for one art historian would place Mater’s work in the category of postmodernist pseudo art.

Another high-profile piece that I’d place in the same category is Mater’s Evolution of Man series. As described on his website: “A silhouetted gas pump mutates into a human X-ray, a gun to its head, before morphing back again.” It is “a succinct, urgent warning against an over-reliance on the petrodollar, a destructive addiction Mater [has] witnessed in Saudi Arabia.”

Ahmed Mater, Evolution of Man.

Ahmed Mater, Evolution of Man, 2010.

Indeed it is, and unlike the Illuminations series, its meaning could probably be guessed by most viewers, without instruction. But like other “conceptual” pieces, the generic idea matters more than its particular manner of execution. Although the New York Times  has suggested that the X-ray is of Mater himself, the viewer cannot know that directly from the image. It is dehumanized and impersonal in its effect. An X-ray of anyone else would have served the idea as well. As a warning sign, I get it. But it appeals to my intellect, not to my heart. To that extent, it fails as art (not to mention the non-artistic nature of the X-ray images themselves).

Yet another “conceptual” piece by Mater that, however clever, suffers from similar shortcomings in my view is Magnetism. Anyone who knows of the Kaaba (Islam’s holiest site, which draws millions of pilgrims during the annual Hajj) is likely to guess the significance of the work’s magnetic black cube surrounded by concentric circles of iron filings. But the piece’s abstract, mechanical nature gives no access in personal human terms to the nature of that experience, and therefore (unlike a work of genuine art) offers no reason to contemplate it further once the idea has been grasped.

Recent Exhibition in New York

In conjunction with the Crown Prince’s recent visit to the U.S., the MiSK Institute sponsored a small Contemporary Saudi Art exhibition in New York for four days late last month at the prestigious Phillips auction house on Park Avenue—preceded by one on March 21st at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In my view, the works shown largely suffered from the same deficiencies as those noted above. With two exceptions, they were all in the spurious postmodernist vein of “conceptual art.”1

Ahmed Mater - Digital Spirituality

Amr Alngmah, Digital Spirituality.

Amr Alngmah’s Digital Spirituality— an installation in which a central cube is surrounded by concentric circles of electronic components—echoed the theme of  Mater’s Magnetism,  in an equally depersonalized manner.

Rashed Al Shashai - Beep Beep

Rashed Al Shashai, Beep Beep, 2015. Acrylic light box.




Another work, Rashed Al Shashai’s Beep Beep diptych, set the Looney Tunes cartoon characters Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner against a traditional pattern of Arabic latticework. A provocative juxtaposition, but its point eluded me. Was it an ironic allusion to the universal rat race? Whatever its intent, can it have any but a fleeting effect?

Al Shashai’s Heaven’s Door also combined decorative with “conceptual” elements. At a distance it is a colorful and visually appealing installation of five arches. On closer examination, however, one sees that it is an assemblage of banal food and sink strainers. It was meant, we were told, to say something about the filter through which one enters heaven. But once again, a metaphor conveyed through such gimmicky means functions, at best, on a superficial intellectual level, not at all on a deeply emotional one.

Ahmad Angawi’s Street Pulse was a wholly “conceptual” piece which had no visual appeal at all. A meteor-like large sphere made up of microphones, it is described as

an ongoing interactive piece that will evolve with the contribution of different people, whose voices will be recorded from different locations in the Arab world. . . . The microphones offer an opportunity to speak and express oneself. The aim? ‘Evolution, not revolution’. . . . The project acts as an electrocardiogram machine, which instead of measuring the vitals of the body, would measure the pulse of the street.

A commendable social aim, but electrocardiogram machines are medical devices, not works of art.

The website from which the description of Angawi’s piece is taken belongs to Edge of Arabia— a non-profit collaborative founded in 2003 to foster dialogue and exchange between the Middle East and the West through free exhibitions, publications, and public programming. One of its co-founders is the British artist Stephen Stapleton (not to be confused with Steven Peter Stapleton), who is also engaged in communications for the MiSK Art Institute. In a TEDx talk about Edge of Arabia, Stapleton has avowed his belief in art’s “power as a universal language instrumental in bringing about change in the world.” What he apparently fails to see, however, is that the universal language of visual art consists of cross-culturally meaningful imagery—not postmodernist “conceptual” pieces that require verbal commentary to be understood.

Saudi Women’s Art and Islamic Aniconism

A highly commendable aspect of recent developments in Saudi art is the effort to give women a more active role. As it happens, the two pieces that I found most visually striking in the New York exhibition were by women working in the Al-Qatt tradition [more] of domestic interior decoration, from the Asir region of southwestern Arabia. They were Our Mother’s House and this large collaborative mural:

Al-Qatt Mural

Al-Qatt Mural, Contemporary Saudi Art exhibition, New York, March 2018.

Their intricate multi-colored patterns of geometric shapes gave the eye something to delight in.

For the women who create them, we were told, Al-Qatt decorations can encode personally meaningful references. According to one account, Al-Qatt

expresses a long relationship between people and their natural environment, showing complex scenes that narrate the stories of their family, culture, environment, rituals and agriculture.

Turkish miniature - Fables of Bidpai

Turkish miniature illustrating one of the Fables of Bidpai, ca. 1589. British Museum, Add. 15153, f.114.

In the absence of imagery, however, such references are entirely inaccessible to outside viewers. In that respect, the Al-Qatt tradition contrasts sharply with works of narrative visual art in other regions of the Islamic world. See, for example, the Turkish miniature at the right, illustrating one of the Fables of Bidpai.

Persia had an especially rich history of narrative art, as exemplified by this image depicting an event in the early life of the Emperor Akbar:

Persian miniature - Baby Akbar

Persian miniature – The Baby Akbar and His Mother Hamidah Banu Maryam Makani. Artists: Sanvalah and Narsingh. British Museum, Or.12988, f. 22r





The fundamental difference between decorative and pictorial art of course raises the thorny issue of Islamic aniconism. In Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni tradition has until recently maintained a strict ban on figurative representation (based not on the Qur’an itself but on related hadith), whereas no such prohibition was observed by the Shi’a in Persia or even by the Hanafi branch of Sunni Islam found in Turkey.

In recent years, the Saudi ban on imagery has begun to be relaxed, however—primarily through photographic media. A featured work in the New York exhibition, for example, was a “performance art” piece entitled I Went Away and Forgot You, by Dana Awartani. In the preparatory phase of the work, Awartani creates a meticulous floor installation of sand she has hand-dyed with local pigments and arranged in a geometric pattern resembling traditional floor tiles once common in Arabic homes. The second part of the work is a video showing her sweeping away one of her floor pieces.

Dana Awartani, I Went Away and Forgot You (still from video).

When a version of the work was exhibited at the 2017 Jakarta Biennale, it was described as “a call to celebrate the beauty of traditional Islamic design and architecture” and an implicit criticism of the wealthy Saudis who discarded that native aesthetic for more modern, Western modes of interior decoration, “leaving no trace of their cultural identity.”

Awartani was said to be “celebrating and preserving the timeless language of geometric aesthetics as a universal language of beauty and harmony.” Here again, however, the essential nature of the decorative/design arts is misconstrued. While geometric designs can indeed create a sense of abstract “beauty and harmony,” they do not signify something particular in the way pictorial art can, and therefore do not constitute a “timeless language,” properly speaking.

Awartani’s video raises a related question regarding figurative representation. Remarkably, given the traditional conservatism of Saudi society, it shows her with her face uncovered and her long dark tresses freely flowing (though she is modestly garbed in a long black dress). If such freedom can be permitted in a video, why hasn’t it occurred in Saudi painting? One obvious answer is that, unlike photography and video, figurative art requires a long-honed skill that has been totally absent in Saudi Arabia, owing to its strict aniconism.

The Future of Saudi Art

In a panel discussion at the Phillips in connection with the New York exhibition, Saudi artists lamented the lack of visual art education, and noted that steps are being taken to fill that need. In fact, the artists themselves have been raising funds to teach art in Saudi schools. The crucial question then is, What will such education consist of? Will future Saudi artists learn to represent the natural world in painting and sculpture, as visual artists have done around the world since time immemorial? Or will they continue to emulate the contemporary artworld’s pursuit of postmodernist pseudo art?

Tellingly, when I asked Stephen Stapleton why there was virtually no figurative art in the exhibition (the one exception being the cartoon-inspired Beep Beep), he replied that some Saudi artists are doing figurative work but the exhibition’s organizers wanted to be considered “contemporary.” As to why figurative painting and sculpture are not considered “contemporary,” he had no answer.

Such, dear reader, is the stranglehold of postmodernism. Will the Saudis be strong enough to free themselves from it? Not likely, I fear, given the power of the artworld juggernaut.


  1. On the spurious nature of “conceptual art,” see “What Is ‘Conceptual Art’?,” in Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts, 89–92.