by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
A decade back the trend to be named ‘a global artist’ roared amongst the art community. The national identity was dubbed as a barrier to rightly experiencing the artistic expression – universal human emotion. The immediacy to claim the title global artist was a long leap before a cognizant attempt could explore the complex binary of east and west and tradition and modern in its entirety. Sooner the fragile state of global discourse around art and artist was rendered visible – when the conditions for assimilation of a heterogeneous society were regularly stifled. Even before the assertion of global artists could find a firm footing, the grounds began to shake. The exhibition Re-Composing, curated by Mona Al Abdullah and Maya Al Abdullah, and presented by 369 Art Gallery at Palazzo Bembo in Venice with 13 Saudi visual artists challenges the myopic opposition of the north-south. As the title suggests, the exhibition introduces the concept of cultural recomposition and proposes its effects on group interaction processes led by the Saudi artists.
The curatorial team led by Mona Al Abdullah and Maya Al Abdullah along with the research assistants Cyrine Bettaleb Ali and Remo Ciucciomei invited the Saudi and Saudi-based artists to explore the characteristics that determine personal as well as social identity. In doing so, the artists question the stereotypes while exploring attributes such as gender, race, nationality and heritage. Re-Composing art exhibition is the result of in-depth research conducted by the curator Mona Al Abdullah, about different theories, which suggested analysing the re-composition of the actual Saudi cultural identity. With this curatorial practice, she tries to counter the 1950s-60s studies done by American sociologists including Talcott Parsons, Alex Inkeles and the American writer Daniel Lerner, who distinguished two kinds of social systems: traditional and modern. They associated modern with western societies, exclusively: modernisation was seen as a typically occidental process that non-western societies could learn only by abandoning their traditional cultures.
In an interview with STIR, Mona and Maya expound on the curatorial approach to recompose the artistic practice of the participating artists Re-Composing exhibition built the whole curatorial practice on theoretical researches and on the ground, in sociology, history of arts and visual arts to prove that in our era this system of binary opposition between traditions and modernity is considered too harsh and naive, Re-Composing in its new perspective is contesting this dichotomy, by showcasing 13 Saudi artists and artworks that the curator uses to prove that socials systems are not as simple and homogeneous as the theories suggested and that the case of study here, the Saudi cultural identity, is proving that this 50's dichotomy is just overtaken by time and events, Saudi art, Saudi artists, people, prove that another theory is possible, that of building modernity while embracing traditions."
To accentuate the visual appeal of the exhibition, Maya and Bettaleb Ali worked on one of the key elements of modernity, that is technology. To catch the attention of the audience, the series of video projections, programmed interactive artworks, short films and NFTs co-exist with the installations and sculptures made of raw materials such as wood, wool, sand and petrol. This curatorial choice was made by the Re-Composing curatorial team to take the audience on a journey of cultural discovery.
The history of the rugs in Saudi Arabia is as old as the Arabian Peninsula. From the intersection of personal history and present-day reality, the digital art project by Saeed El Gamhawi My Mother's Rug emerges. For Gamhawi, the rug prompts the audience to introspect about the relationship between families and national history. By having the last remaining material objects, which tie him to his local culture, the rug offered by his father to his mother as a wedding gift, Gamhawi negotiates his memory to embrace the reality of the contemporary world. To render a sense of eternity to the coveted piece of rug, Gamhawi has it digitised. The internal migration gripping Saudi Arabia, and Gamhawi's move from his hometown Riyadh – now an economically rich and diverse place – all culminate in the artwork to talk about the necessity to rise above singular identities in an effort to respect the differences.
The ring as a sign of relationship and connection is of sacred connection in Islam. In a similar vein, the work Connection by Hmoud Al Attawi extends the discussion from the space of holy veneration to ideals of simplicity. The work is about a series of the small plastic piece, "the idea of the Islamic ring is summed up by counting the number of tasbihs by pressing a large button to record the dhikr and record them in the form of numbers appearing on a screen like the one on the calculator and made it capable of memorising the last number even after turning off the device," mentions the artist. The similarity of the work with the painting Creation of Adam by artist Michelangelo hints toward the communion between the creature and creator.
"The 30 artworks of the 13 participating Saudi artists are infinitely reflecting the outside light colours, like superimposed mirrors where you can see the rich diversity of a hidden cultural identity, revealing itself, now, to the world," inform the curators. The artists have the vantage point to take a kaleidoscopic view on the Arab art to suggest, "no political or economical message of peace can ever compete without the cultural and artistic message of peace, these artists, by revealing themselves, their personal cultural identity, are opening the doors of their hidden worlds to the world,” continue the curators.
The curatorial framework of the art exhibition offers the artist an opportune moment to draw on the many cultural identities rooted in the rich legacy and heritage of the Arab world, yet does not shy away from discovering new worlds of possibilities. No Foreign Lands by Houda Terjuman is one such work to exemplify this. The painting of a tall and golden palm tree placed on the Victorian three-seater against the backdrop of blue sky and sand dune articulates the overlapping identities and "drifting destinies". The hazy social tensions between the homeland and host country are highlighted by the convergence of the sky and desert.
The visual exhibition as a knowledge production site has the potential to gather ideas and raise curiosity around it, within and beyond the gallery. With this exhibition, the audience can take away, "the smells, sounds and colours of humans like them, who live and grow in Saudi Arabia," conclude Mona and Maya.
The exhibition Re-Composing is an on view at Palazzo Bembo, Venice, until August 13, 2022.