The artist Ahmed Mater was trained as a General Surgeon. He documents the intersection between religion and urbanization in contemporary Saudi Arabia with an almost medical methodology: his photographs are like x-rays of a society that appears fully veiled to the outside world.
His most recent series, The Desert of Pharan, portrays the globalization of the Muslim holy city of Mecca. His photograph, Golden Hour (which was enlarged to dominate a large wall at Art Dubai 2013), depicts a line of construction cranes bowing their slender yellow necks in deference to the Kaaba*. Neon-lit skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, and other signs of modernization dominate the background. As the viewer, it’s compelling to consider whether the photograph has been taken at sunrise or sunset, whether modernization is bowing to religion, or the image is meant to communicate harmony between advancement and tradition. Ahmed actually had to scout for the perfect shot for three days before climbing up into a crane that was attached to the minaret of a mosque and claiming his masterpiece.
At the peak of the oil boom, Saudi Arabia was interestingly influenced by Texan culture. In a previous installation, The Cowboy Code, the artist placed Sharia* in Arabic beside the American cowboy’s code of ethics. The entire installation was painstakingly constructed of toy gun caps (probably thousands of them), which he bought from small shops in Albalad (the old town section of Jeddah). In an earlier interview with Naema Rashid, Ahmed Mater explained, “The cowboy is the nomad of the western sands, like the Bedouin is the nomad of the Eastern sands. I’m not creating it. The code already exists. The moral sense exists inside all of us. The example exists; the fact exists. I’m just showing the way by bringing in a catchy example from the past so people can engage with the work. This engagement is my reward. Seeking what unites us rather than what sets us apart: The Cowboy Code.”
I met Ahmed Mater at the Athr Gallery’s space at Art Dubai this past March after I was overwhelmed with curiosity regarding his Desert of Pharan series. I overcame my natural shyness, asked to meet him, he shook my hand, and I began to ask questions. Jeddah’s art scene is said to be flourishing, and Ahmed Mater is a prominent contributor to its growth. Here is what we discussed first in person and subsequently via email:
Q&A with Ahmed Mater
DANNA: Your work is grounded in Saudi Arabia-a country that is famous for honoring its ancient roots while pioneering modern advances and discovery. Can you please shine a physician’s flashlight into your life as an artist in the Kingdom?
AHMED: Art in Saudi is emerging. There are two types of artists in Saudi: those who prefer to stay within the realm of what is known and safe, and those who aspire to reach an internationally recognized level. The latter group is part of an actual movement heading towards a new understanding, artists positioning themselves so as not to be bent backwards by the current.
In the past two years new underground groups have emerged, sharing ideas and experimenting without any expectation of pleasing the market, the government, the media, or the brands dominating the contemporary art world.
DANNA: What is the art scene like in Saudi Arabia?
AHMED: The art scene in Saudi Arabia is one of the only arenas for communicating and discussing alternative life experiences. Edge of Arabia [of which Mater is a founder] recently held two important exhibitions, We Need to Talk (Jeddah, January, 2012) and #COMETOGETHER (London, October, 2012). Athr Gallery and Alaan Art Space are two major galleries in Saudi, and artist’s organizations such as Telfaz 11, U-turn, C3, Ibn Aseer, Tsami, Red Wax and the newly launched Amen Foundation work towards representing all threads of a growing tapestry.
DANNA: It could be yet another stereotype, but many people assume that photography is prohibited in Islam and particularly in Saudi Arabia. Do you ever run into trouble as a photographer capturing a society that is sometimes perceived as being closed off from the outside world?
AHMED: The question is not about censorship, but rather about new censorships. Photography is growing here and has only recently become accepted and admired. The country is slowly but drastically changing. It’s complicated!
*Kabba: Located in Mecca, the Kabba is the most sacred site in Islam. Wherever they are in the world, when Muslims pray, they face towards the Kabba. It used to be challenging to determine the direction of the Kabba, but now there is a handy iPhone app! According to the Five Pillars of Islam, it is compulsory for Muslims to go on Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime and to circumambulate the Kabba seven times.
*Sharia: In summary, Sharia is the term for Islamic law and a prescribed moral code by which to live, deriving from the Holy Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed (referred to as the Sunnah).
For more information about Ahmed Mater and the Saudi arts scene visit Athr Gallery in Jeddah here.
To learn about Edge of Arabia, an independent arts initiative developing the appreciation of contemporary Arab art and culture with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia, click here.
Photo Credits: Images courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Saudi Arabia