In 2012, Raneen Bukhari had graduated from university and was back home in Khobar in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She wanted to expand her family’s business, an art store called Desert Designs that opened during the Gulf War, and she began trying different art community projects. One of those initiatives started with a call for art expressed through a variety of mediums, a collection she, along with co-founder Najla AlSuhaimi, hoped to turn into a traveling art gallery. They called it LOUD Art and, in the years that came after, took the gallery to various cities around the Gulf. LOUD includes artists from Khobar, its city of origin, as well as every city it visits. The gallery has featured artists from Jeddah, Riyadh, Oman, and Bahrain.
Recently, Raneen started another art initiative with Najla in Khobar: Huna Art, a community discussion platform for artists and art enthusiasts. The team conceived it as an open invitation educational platform – anyone with a particular concept or interest in mind can suggest the topic to the core group and find support to arrange an event. Huna also has a crowdsourced, interactive social media component: With the help of its followers Huna uses Snapchat to cover art events around the world, bringing international art trends to the far corners of Saudi Arabia.
Speaking with AGSIW, Raneen discussed the influence of art trends in Jeddah and Riyadh on her work, trying to generate national and regional interest in artists from the Eastern Province, and the need for more art institutions to support local artists.
AGSIW: Tell us about LOUD Art: What have you been doing with the initiative for the past four years?
Raneen: LOUD happened because the Jeddah and Riyadh scene were so active and in Khobar and the Eastern Province the scene was dead. Art was all the same here – abstract expressionism – and nobody was experimenting with new mediums. I contacted different artists to give us art in installations, sculptures, performances, digital, video, graffiti… I did a giant show of different mediums and people would ask, “How can this be art? It’s not a painting.” So I would explain and it started a dialogue. That was the first motivation behind LOUD. The year after we made LOUD about public art. Jeddah has the largest open air museum so on every roundabout they have gigantic sculptures from famous artists. In the Eastern Province, because [Khobar is] an oil city and a new city, there is not much in terms of beauty in the streets, so we did a show with concepts for murals, sculptures, public art ideas. The third was in collaboration with Nuqat and the theme was “Executing Culture Shock.” They provided us with a few speakers who spoke during LOUD’s event and we had a show and a miniconference. The fourth LOUD focused on reinterpreting contemporary art; we wanted to define what contemporary art was in Saudi and what was current here. Our themes are always up for interpretation, though it appears very cohesive and all of our artists are on the same wavelength; they each talk about their own experience and in their own way.
AGSIW: With LOUD Art, you aim to inspire artists to try something new, to get them away from their typical style, to push the local art scene forward as much as possible.
Raneen: Artists in Jeddah and Riyadh tend to experiment a lot, and I wanted artists in the Eastern Province to push and try doing different things – to think outside of the canvas. The artwork here was becoming repetitive and meshing together, so for the first LOUD, I wanted to push artists to experiment with different mediums, to add mediums together, to push their boundaries further than having something aesthetically pleasing and beautiful. That was the goal. I contacted artists I liked and those who were doing something different and I said, “Hey, why not do this as an installation?” We tried to push them to come out of their comfort zone and experiment with something new. That was an underlying theme that carried on through all of our shows. I give artists a chance to experiment without having the fear of going solo – which is the usual way of doing art shows in Saudi – you have to fill up the entire gallery space and there are not a lot of opportunities to do art shows. I try to give artists the opportunity to experiment with new mediums, to receive critiques and see the public reaction to that new medium and then they go on to create a collection using that kind of medium.
AGSIW: Where LOUD Art tries to inspire the production of local art and take it outside of Khobar, Huna seems more focused on creating a dialogue about art inside Khobar. How did the idea for it come about?
Raneen: Najla Abdulla came to me with this idea. In Jeddah they were doing art talks, and she told the group there that we wanted something similar where we talk about different forms of art in the Eastern Province. The Jeddah group was supportive and encouraging. We decided to call it Huna Art, meaning “Art is here.” We started out by asking creatives we know to an initial meeting and we talked to them about doing monthly talks. That first group of people that came became Huna Art. We are 10 volunteers who work together to create events every other week. We gather, choose our speakers for the next couple of months, everybody has a task and we push each other to do this.
We have these mixed-gender gatherings, which is crazy for Saudi, and we talk about creative things and how we can work together to increase our productivity to shine and be more global. Huna has grown. We do it in different locations, and sometimes we do group travels like going to an art debate and we cover those events for people who don’t have the opportunity to go to a specific show or place, so they can see it on our channels. Artists contact us when they are traveling around and going to an art show and they cover it for us. We give them access to our Snapchat account and they give our followers a tour. It happens often and it’s really exciting and fun. We have around 10,000 followers on Snapchat.
AGSIW: Tell us about art in Saudi and more specifically in the Eastern Province: What is the state of art culture there and how do you see each LOUD and Huna contributing to the local scene?
Raneen: In established, older, and larger cities art is a major part of education and the architecture or landscape of the city so you’ll have an art gallery district. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have this. To have an art culture you need institutions, which we don’t have. We recently started adding art and design into the university programs. Before that if you wanted an art education you had to travel. That is what is lacking in Saudi and they are starting now to change it by building contemporary art museums. The fact that the oldest art gallery in Saudi is only eight years old can tell you a lot about the history of art here. The first artist that got recognition from Saudi was 50 years ago. So it’s a very young and new culture. Our art is only getting attention now because suddenly Saudi Arabia is getting attention globally so people want to know about it, and they want to know what’s happening and who the artists are. It’s interesting to see it grow now; more artists are doing art shows abroad and getting international attention and critical acclaim. In the Eastern Province, the percentage of artists is actually more than Riyadh and Jeddah but we have no institutions. Desert Designs is one of the only institutions in Saudi that showcases art and has an art space. That is a problem in the Eastern Province and is what we are trying to overcome.
LOUD is pushing the younger generation of artists to do more work; it adds to the culture by making it for the people. Art galleries often become very elite and only people of a certain class attend, but we have artwork that starts at $20 or $30 – prices unheard of in most galleries in Saudi. I want to have a market where anybody can attend, anybody should attend, and everybody can buy. If you like it, buy it, because it’s affordable. That’s the culture I’m trying to promote and create.
Although the entry of women into the Gulf’s diplomatic and military ranks was slower than elsewhere, the region is in the midst of a sweeping transformation, largely due to top-down policies and social shifts.
Rather than a change of policy, the appointment of Ali Akbar Ahmadian may be more about who gets credit for Iran’s diplomatic initiatives.
Through its careful examination of the forces shaping the evolution of Gulf societies and the new generation of emerging leaders, AGSIW facilitates a richer understanding of the role the countries in this key geostrategic region can be expected to play in the 21st century.