A Hokusai-like wave of art is washing over the desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia this December. Over the past few years, the Kingdom has ramped up its creative output by funding far-reaching art programming as part of its 2030 Vision to open up – both socially and economically – to the world. One of the biggest of these cultural projects is the Diriyah Biennale, Saudi Arabia’s first contemporary art biennial.
Maha Malluh, Food for Thought “WORLD MAP”, 2021
Opened on 11 December 2021 and running until 11 March 2022, the exhibition is big not only in ambition but also in scale: 63 artists are included in the show – 26 of whom are Saudi – and they’ve taken over 27,000 square metres of specially renovated warehouse space in the JAX district, just outside of Riyadh. Half of the works are brand new commissions, many of which are large-scale.
The Saudi Biennale reveals the power and diversity of global contemporary art practice and puts Saudi Arabia very much into that conversation.
This enormous undertaking is being led by Philip Tinari, the director and chief executive of the UCCA Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, China. Unsurprisingly, Tinari’s Chinese expertise has seeped into the show. The title, ‘Feeling the Stones’, comes from the 1980s Chinese slogan “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, which was the way the then government described the economic and social reforms taking place in Chinese society at the time.
Maha Malluh, Capturing Light, 2005, courtesy the artist and Hafez Gallery. Photo © Riyadh Art 2021
“It was this idea of getting from here to there, bit-by-bit, step-by- step, and not necessarily knowing exactly how it was going to play out. There was a tentativeness and a certain improvisation – iterative, but still directional,” says Tinari, who can see parallels between this moment in Chinese history and Saudi Arabia’s position right now.
63 artists are included in the show – 26 of whom are Saudi – and they are set to take over 27,000 square metres of specially renovated warehouse space in the JAX district.
“There have been these incredible cultural and other kinds of openings happening [in Saudi Arabia] in the last three to five years,” he says. Tinari also notes that the quote relates to the way in which artists often work, moving forward step-by-step in a process of creation.
He describes the biennial’s venue at JAX as a warren of warehouses, “a little bit like the Arsenale [in Venice] but more dimensional.” Visitors will be led “on a journey” through the exhibition, which is split into six sections. The first is an overture of the show, where all of the inspirations for the rest of the programme come together in one place, inspired in part by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s opening to the Documenta 13 exhibition that she directed in 2012 (Documenta is a leading contemporary art exhibition that runs every five years in Kassel, Germany).
Filwa Nazer with her artwork The Other Is Another Body 2, 2019
Tinari’s overture will include disparate works, ranging from South African artist William Kentridge’s major video installation More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015) and a work about social archetypes by US artist Geof Oppenheimer, to works by Chinese artists active in the 1980s and art historical pieces from Saudi Arabia.
The latter come from the Al-Mansouria Foundation, a cultural organisation established by HRH Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulaziz Al- Saud, which has a collection of pieces by Middle Eastern artists. “It’s an important collection in Saudi Arabia. I really want to show a bit of the pre-history of contemporary art in the country,” Tinari says.
Many people coming to this show may have a very straightforward understanding of what art is: that it’s ornamental or beautiful.
The subsequent sections include ‘Experimental Preservation’, an idea taken from architecture; ‘Beyond Jetlag’, looking at temporalities of influence in our networked era; ‘Going Public’, focused on social practice; and ‘Brave New Worlds’, inspired by our post-pandemic, Anthropocene age.
The final portion looks at spirituality, with Buddhist-inspired works by the Chinese artist Han Mengyun; transcendent Light and Space structures from the US artist Larry Bell; and “an immersive, infinity room-like installation that reveals the 99 names for God in Arabic” by the Saudi artist Lulwah Al-Homoud.
Dana Awartani, Standing on the Ruins of Aleppo, 2021
There is a large Chinese artist contingency in the show, with 12 artists coming from the Republic. “There have been few places where Chinese artists have been put in meaningful conversations with the rest of the world,” Tinari says. “The interest in China [for the Diriyah Biennale] has been incredible – people there are fascinated by Saudi opening up.” However, despite the UCCA’s collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Biennale Foundation (DBF) for the biennial’s inaugural edition, Tinari doesn’t expect many Chinese visitors to attend. Instead, it is aimed mostly at a local audience, most of whom may never have seen such a huge display of contemporary art.
“Many people coming to this show may have a very straightforward understanding of what art is: that it’s ornamental or beautiful,” Tinari says. “I think it will be interesting for them to come and see the other things that art can do: that it can create a sense of community and spark conversation.” This affected some curatorial decisions, like choosing not to include too much video art.
It’s an important collection in Saudi Arabia. I really want to show a bit of the pre-history of contemporary art in the country.
Ultimately, Tinari says, the goal is to create a show that “reveals the power and diversity of global contemporary art practice and puts Saudi [Arabia] very much into that conversation”. But, more than that, he feels a great sense of responsibility in putting the show together. “In a way, we are making the case for contemporary art in general,” he explains. “If we do our job right, [locals] will come to many more exhibitions.”
And the DBF is already planning for that eventuality. In addition to the contemporary art biennial, the foundation plans to run an Islamic art biennial in alternating years, with the first one slated for 2022. Meanwhile, the JAX site – home to more than 100 regenerated warehouses – is expected to become one of the key arts-and-culture districts in the country, with exhibition spaces, artist studios and art galleries. Watch this space: it looks like – through sheer size and determination – Saudi Arabia is soon to become a global arts hub.
Aya Albakree, CEO of the Thunaiyat Ad-Diriyah Foundation
Cover image: A So Dong Choe sculpture at Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium in 2019 at Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. Courtesy of Riyadh Art
Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale runs until 11 March 2022 in Riyadh. Follow @Biennale_sa on Instagram.