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For the first time in the kingdom’s history, Saudi Arabia will be welcoming visitors to the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, in the JAX district of Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh. Serving as a showcase for both local and international artists, the biennale, which will begin December 11 and run through March 11, 2022, has ambitions to cement Saudi Arabia’s place as a burgeoning art and cultural hub in the region. The biennale has been curated by Philip Tinari, the director and chief executive of UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in China, and will feature over 60 artists, with nearly 30 from Saudi Arabia. Only the second biennial art exhibition in the Gulf, after the United Arab Emirates’ nearly 30-year-old Sharjah Biennial, the Diriyah Biennale will also present programs, workshops, and talks under the theme “Feeling the Stones.”
The Diriyah Biennale Foundation, under the Saudi Ministry of Culture, has organized the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale. It is also planning the upcoming Islamic Art Biennale, which will be held on alternate years. In line with the country’s Vision 2030 development plan, the biennial and JAX district aim to position Saudi Arabia as a cultural destination. The exhibition joins several other cultural institutions and art fairs locally and in the Gulf, including Noor Riyadh, Jeddah’s Athr Gallery, the Saudi Art Council, Misk Art Institute, Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, and Hayy Jameel, Art Jameel’s new complex in Jeddah, placing the region at the forefront of cultural and artistic exchange. AGSIW spoke to Diriyah Biennale Foundation CEO Aya Al-Bakree and Saudi artist and photographer Marwah Al Mugait to learn more about the role of the biennale in the development of the Saudi and Gulf art scene.
AGSIW: What was the inspiration behind creating the contemporary and Islamic art biennales?
Aya: On a personal level, I’ve always had a passion for the arts. After studying and working in the sector in Europe for a decade, I wanted to return home to be part of what was happening here. Saudi Arabia has long had an active artist community and the basis of a strong art ecosystem that has been flourishing over recent years. This will now be showcased to the world on a global platform created to act as a catalyst for dialogue between the growing art communities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. What our foundation is conceiving – two art biennales alternating between contemporary and Islamic arts – is a unique proposition, and it will grow. I can’t share too much at this stage, but I can say that the format will be similar, working with a fantastic curatorial team and bringing together the global and the local. What is important to stress is the foundation that unites them, the not-for-profit organization that is specifically established to present these biennales. Our model is designed to incubate and further the art ecology of the kingdom.
AGSIW: Did the Diriyah Biennale Foundation face any challenges while organizing this exhibition?
Aya: Having attended numerous exhibitions, fairs, expos, and biennales, there was this reflection moment on how the foundation would operate. Then, of course, there was the pandemic. I think we are the only biennale to have been conceived and realized during this global moment. But with challenges come solutions. Our team worked within what was possible online. Although we will be an “IRL” – “In Real Life” – experience, a lot of our preparation has been virtual. Speaking with our curatorial team and with the artists, it’s clear that many of those vital steps leading up to install have been done in a way no one would have thought of over two years ago – and it has worked.
AGSIW: What is uniquely “Saudi” about the Diriyah Biennale? Why was Diriyah chosen as the biennale’s host city?
Aya: We are a biennale built from a context, and that context is truly Saudi. Over 40% of the artists featured in our first edition are Saudi. Our location is key to what makes us unique in the region. Riyadh is a major metropolis, and, of course, Diriyah is a very special place with extraordinary heritage, the site of the first capital of the Saudi dynasty, and, through its UNESCO world heritage site, is already the focus of international attention. As a district of Riyadh, which is the site of wider development and investment in arts and culture, it represents a location that can provide a new platform for the world to connect with and discover more of Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning cultural scene. The exposure that a biennale will bring to a local art scene is profound and has an incredibly positive impact on the overall cultural ecosystem, from artists to galleries, from museums to the art market of the biennale’s host city. We have seen this impact at biennales around the world that have truly opened people’s eyes to other cultural scenes that they might not otherwise know about or have the opportunity to engage with. From this perspective, Diriyah is ideal.
AGSIW: Tell us more about the newly developed JAX district. How will it contribute to the Saudi cultural ecosystem?
Aya: JAX is a refurbished estate comprising of over 100 warehouses. Right now, the atmosphere is one of transformation, as it starts to become the new reference arts and culture district for the country. There is an exciting sense of invention and creativity about the area, which will feature exhibition spaces, artist studios, art galleries, facilities, and platforms. The biennale in many ways symbolizes the transformation, with interventions that dramatically change the sense of the location and open new dialogues.
AGSIW: Marwah, how did you get your start as an artist?
Marwah: I started as a photographer, just as a hobby, after getting my BA in business administration from King Saud University. But I come from a very artistic family: My mother was a painter and my grandfather a poet. At first, I worked on commercial projects, doing fashion photography, food photography, etc., but I felt like something was missing from my work. So, in 2011, I decided to pursue my MA in photojournalism from the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom.
There, my practice became very symbolic and metaphoric. So, for my final project, one of my professors encouraged me to use the photographic medium as a window into my own culture. I decided to explore mental health in Saudi Arabia, specifically bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety in an attempt to represent this internal human struggle visually. I then became really interested in trying to depict the unseen and focus inward. Eventually, I began to explore performance, theater, and the movement of the body as a better encapsulation of this struggle, because it could capture all of the motion happening in front of the camera without being limited to the dimensions of the frame. When I did my residency at the Delfina Foundation in 2019, I had the opportunity to explore film, performance, and choreography more deeply, and I worked with these mediums again for my contribution, the film “I Lived Once,” to 21, 39 Jeddah Arts’ “I Love You, Urgently” exhibition.
AGSIW: What will you be presenting at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale?
Marwah: At the biennale, I will be showcasing my first directed, live performance, combining vocalists and performers. The idea stems from a project that I developed while a resident at the Cité des Arts in Paris, where I wanted to explore how the body responds to and moves with sound. I am collaborating with a Palestinian Oriental singer, Abo Ghabi, and a South African performance artist and singer, Annalyzer Stuurman. We have also incorporated folk Saudi sea chants, called Al Fijri, and were fortunate enough to find one of the last families in the country who still practices this tradition. To me, this performance is a sort of revival of traditional, folkloric chants and their histories as well as a chance to understand how cultures and nations use these chants as coping mechanisms and, oftentimes, for survival. Bringing these different traditions together in the performance is a way to show metaphorical solidarity across borders. I also worked with two Saudi choreographers, Ijlal AlSomali and Lamees AlSaddique, for this piece and with a production company in Riyadh, so it’s in many ways also a very local project. In another sense, the performance also tries to visualize the trajectory of the Diriyah Biennale and Saudi art scene. The piece is relatively humble and modest, much like Saudi Arabia is within the global art world.
AGSIW: What are you most looking forward to at the biennale?
Marwah: One thing that is especially exciting about presenting this performance to the Diriyah Biennale audience is that, unlike cities such as Paris, where live performance pieces can be seen all around the city, these types of pieces are less common in Saudi Arabia. What I really enjoy about developing performances is that it gives audience members the opportunity to share the same ground with the performers and mingle with them quite closely, especially since there are no barriers or stages. In addition to bringing that experience to Riyadh, I am also really interested in how the performance will interact with surrounding pieces and installations at the biennale and how the audience will engage with all of these pieces together.
Aya: All of it! The scaling up and transformation of our venue, JAX; our scenography that has been done by Brian Butterfield and Kulapat Yantrasast of WHY Architects; our curator Philip Tinari and what his team has produced; hosting the winner of the Ithra Art Prize. If I really had to point one element out, it would be seeing our Saudi artists presented in dialogue alongside some of the greatest leading international artists.
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