Saudi and U.S. cultural programs provide an opportunity to bridge cultural differences – and showcase artists and performers blending artistic influences from the two countries – while harnessing sources for creativity and innovation.
The first Islamic Art Biennale opened in late January in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to visitors from around the world. With the title “First House,” the biennale celebrates centuries-old artifacts and art practices as well as traditions inspired by the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s first holy site. It also features contemporary artwork exploring themes of home and migration, unity and diversity, and openness and equality. Together, these works, produced by Saudis and non-Saudis, highlight the kingdom’s growing cultural ties to the outside world as well as how art provides innovative pathways to connect different people and communities – including Saudis and Americans.
Reinforcing these themes are the biennale’s location and the people who have managed and organized the event. It is housed in the Western Pilgrimage Terminal of King Abdulaziz Airport, designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan – the star Bangladeshi American architect whose innovative designs revolutionized urban architecture in the 1960s and 1970s. Julian Raby, who headed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art for nearly two decades, is one of the chief curators of the exhibit.
Organized by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, the Islamic Art Biennale is one of two international biennales recently launched in Saudi Arabia. The other was the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in Riyadh, whose curatorial team was led by Philip Tinari, a leading American art curator and writer. One of the Saudis whose work Tinari showcased in Diriyah was Ahmed Mater, an artist who incorporates American and Saudi images and themes into his work and who has had solo shows at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Indeed, his 2016 “Evolution of Man at Standing Rock” links two separate worlds into what Mater calls “one essential fight”: his art warning about the dangers of oil dependence with the Sioux’s battle against building the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline.
The biennales highlight the kingdom’s cultural renaissance and close artistic ties with the United States. By better understanding those ties, Americans and Saudis can more clearly see the common, as well as unique, artistic influences in their two societies. Those forces reflect the work of innovative American and Saudi “networkers” – grassroot artists who can link people and find commonalities as well as distinctive sources. “People,” the contemporary Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem once advised, “need to listen to the artist.”
Heeding Gharem’s advice involves careful examination of his work, such as his 2022 “Don’t Trust the Concrete,” which explores why people blindly trust manmade structures that can fail catastrophically – a message made all too clear by the recent earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. That piece was one of the works anchoring Gharem’s first solo show in New York City, held at the Marc Strauss Gallery in fall 2022. As that show wrapped up, American rapper DJ Khaled starred alongside dozens of Saudi DJs and singers at MDLBEAST’s Soundstorm, a three-day music festival in December 2022 near Riyadh that drew 600,000 people. In February 2022, American singer Alicia Keys, a five-time Grammy award winner, performed at the Maraya concert hall in Al-Ula, home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. In her first Saudi concert, she sang “Jani al-Asmar,” a song made famous by the popular female Saudi singer Etaab.
That concert built on the success of Keys’ husband, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, who, in 2020, became the first Westerner to field a winning team in Saudi Arabia’s competitive camel races. A year after, Swizz Beatz co-founded a Saudi creative consultancy, in part to take advantage of the waves of Saudis who have spent time in the United States creating artwork and founding new companies. Saudi companies and cultural institutions, such as Telfaz11 and the Red Sea Film Festival, have also drawn on this rising class of Saudi creatives.
Others who have studied in the United States have authored poems synthesizing the writings of Arabs and Americans, including Al-Mutannabi, Muhammad al-Thubaiti, T. S. Eliot, Harold Bloom, and Dana Gioia. Additionally, actors such as Ahd Kamel and Dina Shihabi have starred in American films and television shows.
For their part, Riyadh and Washington have played critical roles in deepening cultural ties. Washington has sponsored multiple cultural exchange programs, including a March 2022 concert in Jeddah featuring DJ Raghad and independent musicians Moe Abdo, Ahmed Amin, Hamza Hawsawi, and Ghada Sheri. In addition, since the 2016 launch of the economic and social reform plan Vision 2030, the Saudi Ministry of Culture has sponsored new initiatives and built institutions to promote arts and culture in the kingdom.
One of the most important Saudi cultural programs announced recently is the musical “Our Muallaqat (Suspended Odes): Continuing Glories,” the first major musical of its kind in Saudi history. It will premiere in Riyadh February 22 during Founding Day celebrations. Supervised by renowned Saudi poet Prince Abdulrahman bin Musaid Al Saud and sponsored by the Ministry of Culture’s Theater and Performing Arts Commission, the musical blends ancient and modern themes in a way that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Drawing on a multinational cast and production team with extensive experience overseas, including on Broadway, the show has been described as a “Saudi musical with a global vision.”
Ultimately, Saudi-U.S. cultural ties have strengthened because Mater, Gharem, Keys, and other artists have shown, through their art, how people of different cultures address common challenges. Saudi and U.S. cultural programs provide an opportunity to bridge cultural differences – and showcase artists and performers blending artistic influences from the two countries – while harnessing sources for creativity and innovation.
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