Saudi Arabia: Soft Power through Contemporary Art
Saudi Arabia has been experiencing a breath of fresh air in recent years, driven by a clear and well-defined objective: to achieve the Vision 2030 project. This deadline aims to mark the country's departure from its economic dependence on fossil fuels and symbolize its opening to the world. Culture and contemporary art serve as key mediums for exerting impactful soft power.
By Bettina Bush Mignanego19 juillet 2023
To succeed in its Vision 2030 project, the country must heavily invest in various sectors, including sustainability, urban revitalization, tourism, and culture. In this endeavor, funding is not lacking, with over $15 billion reportedly available for the AlUla region alone. AlUla holds significant archaeological and cultural importance and is at the center of an ambitious project called "Maraya" (meaning "mirror" in Arabic). Designed in 2019 by the Italian studios Già Forma and Black Engineering, Maraya is a building entirely clad in mirrors, comprising nearly 10,000 panels that reflect the beauty of AlUla's landscape. This monumental work of art, the world's largest mirrored structure, has hosted events and renowned artists such as Alicia Keys and Andrea Bocelli, and it has received the prestigious Architizer A+Awards. It is admired for its ability to seamlessly blend into the landscape and disappear among the sand dunes.
Saudi Arabia is on the path of significant social and cultural transformation... art and culture are languages capable of expressing the nuances and dynamic changes
Ute Meta Bauer, Artistic Director of the second Diriyah Biennial of Contemporary Art
With AlUla now established as an international tourist destination, investments in the arts continue with the organization of two major biennales: the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in the Riyadh region, launched in December 2021 and completed in March 2022, and the Jeddah Islamic Arts Biennale, concluded just last May. These biennales are organized by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, led by a woman: Aya Al-Bakree.
Emphasizing the country's desire to be recognized worldwide, the Contemporary Art Biennale was organized by an international team headed by Philip Tinari, director and CEO of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in China, with the participation of about 70 artists.
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Art and culture as expressions of global openness
I believe that the biennale introduces the best methods for bridging the past, the present, and the way we look towards the future
Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid, Member of the curatorial team of the Biennale of Islamic Art
The Diriyah Biennale Foundation has announced that a woman, Ute Meta Bauer from Germany, will serve as the artistic director for the second edition of the Contemporary Art Biennale, scheduled for January 2024 in Riyadh. Bauer, also the founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore since 2013, stated, "Saudi Arabia is on the path of significant social and cultural transformation. I consider this to be a unique opportunity to capture this special moment through art. As the country stands at the threshold of unprecedented change, art and culture are languages capable of expressing the nuances and dynamic changes. I am thrilled to lead the second edition of the Diriyah Biennale's Contemporary Art Biennale and participate in this collective process with artists from Saudi Arabia and abroad."
Another highlight was the Jeddah Islamic Arts Biennale, which concluded last May and featured notable curators, including Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid, who highlighted the significance of these events. He stated, "The Islamic Arts Biennale reflects the richness of Islamic civilization as a whole. It represents art that symbolizes the widespread Muslim cultural heritage across centuries and civilizations, built upon science, knowledge, traditions and inherited best practices. Regarding contemporary arts and their relationship with Islamic arts, I believe that the biennale introduces the best methods for bridging the past, the present, and the way we look towards the future."
According to Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid, there is always continuity between the present and the future. Regarding Vision 2030, he added, "This project carries an important message about our vision of culture, entertainment, and a sustainable environment. The Biennale is not just an exhibition that relates only to the past; it is a continuum. It is about culture and speaks of integration through Muslim multiculturalism."
Balancing openness and deeply rooted culture
I realized the incredible number of artists from the entire Arab world, ready to create a new vision of contemporary art
Moataz Nasr, Egyptian artist known as one of the key exponents of pan-Arab contemporary art
The Islamic Arts Biennale featured the participation of forty-five artists from across the Arab world, including nearly twenty women. International galleries also took part, such as the Italian gallery Continua, which showcased two of its international artists, Saudi artist Ahmed Mater and Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr. According to one of Continua's founders, Mario Cristiani, tangible progress is evident. He remarked, "I have known this country for a long time, and in recent years, I have noticed significant changes towards openness and modernity. It is a revolution that originates from the top, with all the contradictions that can arise from rapid change. In Jeddah, I visited a well-organized biennale. I witnessed an openness that does not contradict its deeply rooted culture. Their art still carries a profound spiritual and poetic quest." Speaking about Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia's internationally renowned artists, Cristiani added, "With a medical background, I am fascinated by his in-depth and analytical research on the evolution of his country. He manages to find absolutely poetic aspects in his works."
As for the Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr, known for his socially engaged works, his on-site participation was marked by yet another highly spiritual artwork. He explained, "I was initially a bit perplexed when I received my invitation to participate. But then I realized the incredible number of artists from the entire Arab world, ready to create a new vision of contemporary art. After participating, my assessment is positive; everything was very well organized. A lot is happening in Saudi Arabia, and it is a country that is rapidly opening up to the rest of the world." His work titled "The Seventh Wave," based on a cyclical philosophical theory dating back to the time of the Muslim Khaldoun and Aristotle, depicts a wave capable of marking change.
The next major artistic event in Saudi Arabia will be the Contemporary Art Biennale in January 2024, expected to gather artists from around the world, further confirming the country's effort to project itself into a future independent from fossil fuels.
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