Emerging Art Scenes: The Illustrative Case of Saudi Arabia

In a world seemingly dominated by business and politics, it can be easy to forget the importance of art in society. Art is often associated with high society and intellectualism, which leads to relatively negative perceptions of countries lacking a relationship with modern art, as they are often perceived to be closed-minded or out of touch. Many of the most coveted pieces of art today are of American or Western European origin, which reportedly reflects the power of the ‘old-guard of the art market and its institutions’.

Image courtesy of Steve Sabella, ©2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Steve Sabella, ©2012, some rights reserved.

It should come as no surprise that countries such as the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom—all of which have significant power on the world stage—have the highest number of art collectors in the world. The endeavour to collect art demonstrates an avid and active interest not only in the arts itself, but also in perpetuating the culture of art in its particular region. Countries with developing markets such as China, India and Brazil are rapidly embracing the art scene, and now account for up to 15 per cent of global collectors, according to Larry’s List, a leading company in the ‘art market knowledge’ scene. Undoubtedly, economic growth is linked with a burgeoning art market. Although art markets across Asia have been able to develop due to strong economic growth, the slowing growth of the Chinese market has prompted a turn to India as the art powerhouse of Asia. This transition is supported by the fact that 36 per cent of art collectors in India are under the age of 41, thus showing a growing relationship between the heart of the Indian populace and the arts. Because the average age of art collectors is 59 years old, according to Larry’s List, to see a younger demographic of collectors in India supports India’s role as a flourishing centre for the arts. Art, as a form of expression, is often seen as an opportunity to challenge the status quo and declare a sense of freedom. For this reason, it is encouraging to see such highly censored countries as China, India, and even Saudi Arabia opening up to the contemporary art scene.

Saudi Arabia has a historically rich relationship with the arts, from the intricate mosaics and calligraphy of its mosques to the rich culture of the Bedouin tribes. However, while an appreciation for traditional art is important, it does not play the same role as contemporary art. Up until around ten years ago, the kingdom did not have any contemporary art galleries. While it comes as no surprise that such a strict country would not tend towards embracing contemporary art, perhaps what is surprising is that Saudi Arabia now has a budding art scene. With around ten modern art galleries located in the country’s most liberal city, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is now able to feature both male and female artists. One of the most recent additions to the Saudi art scene is Al-Hangar, a warehouse where young artists led by Ramy Alquthamy and Nasser Al Salem created an exhibition that was viewed not only by Saudi nationals, but also by representatives from the British Museum, the Pompidou, and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. While impressing foreign correspondents through the intellectual medium of contemporary art is a brilliant way to show the world a side of Saudi Arabia unrepresented by the media, the artists themselves are more invested in creating a ‘sense of community’ out of the Saudi art scene and starting a ‘cultural movement’ within Saudi Arabia. These two concepts are especially important in a kingdom where the young people are surrounded by a restrictive environment with little to do. The emergence of an art scene has the ability to engage the young Saudi populace to artfully spread awareness of their home country, while simultaneously instilling a strong sense of national pride.

Furthermore, Saudi artists show both a strong capacity and willingness to spread political awareness about their kingdom. Examples of such pieces include ‘The Betra of Peace’ (2016) and ‘The Evolution of Man’ (2010). The former work is comprised of a set of concrete, land-plot marking blocks inscribed with the Arabic world for peace, meant to symbolise the breaking of man-made barriers, and the latter work shows the transformation of a gas pump into a human holding a gun to its head, thus representing the self destructive power of oil. While the latter piece may have debuted almost six years ago, its message still rings true. With the price of oil so low and slumping bank deposits, Saudi national reserve assets have reportedly dropped 150 dollars from its peak, the lowest it has been in three years. In addition, Saudi Arabia is currently running a budget deficit of around 100 billion dollars, which is around 13 per cent of its GDP according to recent statistics. However, despite the current economic turmoil, the kingdom does not seem to be a country in trouble. Intent on building the world’s tallest building with a height of 3,280 feet in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is forging ahead with ambitious, multi-billion dollar plans to have the building completed by 2018. This feat of architecture, one of the most arresting forms of art, shows the willingness of Saudi Arabia to continue to embrace a cultural movement that is attempting to turn a Jeddah into an intellectual hub, and represent the rest of the nation as an urban centre for culture and education. Needless to say, Saudi Arabia is not all oil and religion, just as contemporary art is not just Western.

Young Saudi artists who create universally-acclaimed and relatable works are showing the world a side of Saudi that outsiders rarely see. To understand that people, in what seems like a world away to most, have the same thoughts, interests and aspirations, is refreshing in its juxtaposition to the biased scenes of oppression shown by Western media. With the stimulating exhibitions at Al-Hangar just kicking off at the end of last year and still going strong, the future of contemporary art in Saudi Arabia looks promising. And perhaps it will not only open the eyes of its nationals, but the eyes the world around them as well.

Across the Asian and South American continents, a thirst and thrill for art has sprung up, and is transforming the way certain misrepresented countries can be seen. Nations are more than just their corruptive politics and their estranging policies. Throughout time, art has shown itself to be a method by which people come together through discussion and understanding. Perhaps as emerging art scenes continue to grow and catch international attention, no more will the western world be singularly held as the bastion of intellectuality and modernity.

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