One year after the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale launched in Riyadh, the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah embraces myriad global traditions of Islamic religious practice and places the city at the center of narratives of pilgrimage, piety, migration, and movement.
The inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale is in its final weeks, with its closing coinciding with the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The exhibition opened to the public in January under the theme “Awwal Bait,” or “First House.” Located in the Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Arts Biennale was organized by the recently established Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Coming on the heels of the inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in 2022, the Islamic Arts Biennale is the second of two large-scale biennial exhibitions in Saudi Arabia that, according to the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, aim to “nurture creative expression and instill appreciation for the transformative power of the arts.” More broadly, the Islamic Arts Biennale is one of the latest initiatives in Saudi Arabia’s effort to develop its cultural and entertainment sectors as part of the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy in preparation for a post-oil future.
The biennale’s location in the Hajj Terminal’s canopied pavilion and an adjacent, purpose-built indoor space draws on the conceptual and physical location of Jeddah as the starting point for the hajj, a journey that all Muslims hope to undertake. The terminal, whose shape takes inspiration from the Bedouin tents common in the Gulf, was designed by renowned U.S. architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and received the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. During the hajj season, the terminal can receive nearly 80,000 travelers a day. Symbolically, the terminal represents a gateway between the Muslim world and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, a theme evoked in the exhibition.
Old Meets New
In contrast to the format of the Contemporary Art Biennale, the Islamic Arts Biennale juxtaposes 280 historical artifacts from across the Islamic world – from ancient Quranic folios to a nearly 150-year-old Kiswa, the embroidered silken cover of the Kaaba, Islam’s first holy site – with contemporary installations and artwork commissioned by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Many of the artifacts on display are on loan from local and regional institutions, such as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the Louvre. Though many cultural institutions around the world hold collections of historical objects from Islamic civilizations, the Islamic Arts Biennale is considered a seminal event in global Islamic art exhibition and appreciation because few large-scale international shows have focused solely on Islamic art since the 1976 World of Islam Festival in London.
Featuring over 40 international artists and creative collectives, including 18 from Saudi Arabia, Awwal Bait “celebrates cultural, intellectual, and artistic achievements that trace their origins to the House of Allah” in Mecca. The exhibition is arranged around two central themes: Qibla, or the direction of the Kaaba, toward which over 1 billion Muslims around the world pray; and Hijrah, which signifies the displacement and migration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina and the start of the Islamic calendar. While the former considers rituals central to Islam, such as ablution, prayer, and congregation, the latter explores movement, loss, displacement, and, conversely, pilgrimage and cultural exchange. Alongside the biennale is “Al Madar,” a satellite exhibition that also displays historical objects from international collections of Islamic art and artifacts in an effort “to become a global reference and repository for thought-provoking dialogue.”
The Islamic Arts Biennale was developed by a curatorial team led by renowned South African architect Sumayya Vally and consisting of leading scholars of Islamic art, archeology, and architecture. Vally explained, “This biennale is about giving contemporary objects a home by giving them a lineage and giving historic objects a home by giving them a future.” In merging chronologically, conceptually, and materially diverse objects under these universal themes, the show highlights a dynamic range of Islamic creative production and material manifestations of piety. Once considered the “most puritanical of Islamic societies,” Saudi Arabia is now embracing the rich diversity of Islamic influence, tradition, and local histories by merging historical narratives and artifacts with contemporary realities and art installations. Farida Alhusseini, the director of the biennale, emphasized that, “The biennale goes beyond just being a simple exhibition for inanimate objects from distant lands and distant centuries and presents a key opportunity to widen cultural understanding, inspire new perspectives, set trends, and initiate conversations around the Islamic arts.”
Saudi Artists at the Forefront
Nearly half of the contemporary artists and collectives selected to showcase work in the Islamic Arts Biennale are from Saudi Arabia, highlighting the Diriyah Biennale Foundation’s commitment to supporting and empowering the local creative and artistic scene. In the exhibition, Saudi artists, including renowned contemporary artist Ahmed Mater, explore themes such as the environment, ornamentation and calligraphy, community, and the architecture of piety. “Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958,” an installation that considers the last theme in particular, was designed by brothers Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz of Saudi architectural firm Bricklab, who also designed Hayy Cinema, the kingdom’s first independent art house cinema.
Bricklab’s work highlights the history of modernist pilgrimage architecture in Saudi Arabia. The installation showcases objects – from breeze blocks and window shutters to photographs and memorabilia – collected from the recently demolished Air Pilgrims Accommodation building in Jeddah, all situated under bespoke scaffolding reminiscent of the simple, modular design of the original building. Located near Jeddah’s old airport, the pilgrim accommodation city historically housed hundreds of thousands of international visitors annually as they made their way from Jeddah to Mecca. The objects in “Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958” are accompanied by recorded interviews and oral histories that capture the stories of the millions of pilgrims who walked through the building’s halls. As part of Bricklab’s ongoing efforts to celebrate, preserve, and repurpose Saudi Arabia’s modern architecture, the installation creates “a historical archive of the experience of community during the pilgrimage.”
Saudi photographer, researcher, and writer Moath Alofi’s installation, “The Last Tashahud,” similarly draws on the themes of community, migration, and belonging through architecture. His work, a photo series developed over nearly 10 years, captures makeshift roadside mosques and prayer spaces between Jeddah and Medina. These spaces are immediately recognizable by their minarets and protruding Qibla walls, telling the story of hundreds of pilgrims who made the journey between the two cities. Moath told AGSIW that he was inspired to create the photo series in 2014 when he first encountered a roadside mosque like the ones in his installation. The photographs are presented in large lightboxes, creating an immersive landscape that transports viewers to the winding roads leading to Medina.
Moath explained that the installation is about “sustainability, environment, and interesting architecture or architectural thinking from nomads, travelers, and potentially uneducated people.” While on the one hand it highlights the resourcefulness, community, and piety involved for travelers finding a place to pray while in the middle of the long trip to Medina, Moath’s installation also reflects on stories of “abandonment and desertedness” and the material traces of pilgrims who came from around the world to fulfill their religious duties. By using immersive, architectural ruminations to showcase the spaces in which these pilgrims occupied their time, Moath’s and Bricklab’s installations encourage visitors to reflect on the lived experiences of pilgrims, the communities they form, and their contributions to the local landscape.
Events During the Holy Month
While the exhibition has been open since January, the month of Ramadan provides visitors with a unique opportunity to “experience serenity and spirituality” at the “Biennale Nights” program. Featuring film screenings and discussions, architecture workshops, heritage demonstrations, talks by entrepreneurs, and family activities, “Biennale Nights,” which starts after nighttime prayers and lasts until the late hours of the night, welcomes visitors to engage with the themes highlighted in the exhibition while drawing on common social practices during Ramadan, such as late-night gatherings. The exhibition itself extended its opening hours to 3 a.m. to accommodate evening crowds. Like the Islamic Arts Biennale, cultural institutions across the region often hold special events during Ramadan to foster a sense of community, connection, and reflection.
Ramadan has provided the exhibition an additional opportunity to integrate itself into the social fabric of local communities by drawing on practices common during the holy month. As the Islamic Arts Biennale highlights, Saudi Arabia aims to situate narratives surrounding pilgrimage, migration, and piety within local material histories by highlighting age-old ties between the country and global Muslim communities. More closely exploring the links between these locales, the exhibition considers how international and local artists have conceptualized the role of Islam in everyday life throughout time, putting Jeddah and Saudi Arabia at the heart of these discussions and creating new opportunities to showcase Saudi talent. As part of recent investments in the country’s cultural sector, the Islamic Arts Biennale signals a commitment to supporting the growth of the Saudi art scene and its presence on the world stage.
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