Saudi art in Bahrain

Yasmin Sharabi takes us on a tour through Bahrain National Museum’s latest exhibition Discuss this article

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Art consultant Yasmin Sharabi takes us on a tour through Bahrain National Museum’s latest exhibition which highlights the decades-old artistic movement in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the art movement in Saudi Arabia is ‘young’ and, yet, in this exhibition at the Bahrain National Museum entitled ‘Modern and Contemporary Saudi Art: Al Mansouria Collection’, 30 Saudi artists and a total of 104 works from 1980 to the present day are exhibited. In fact, it is ‘widely considered the most comprehensive record of the Saudi Arabian art movement’.

Established by HRH Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, The Al Mansouria Collection comprises a total of over 400 works of art ranging from painting, drawing and sculpture, to photography and video installation. A key component of the Al Mansouria Foundation – which aims to support culture and creativity in Saudi Arabia – the collection has expanded in recent years to include work by other prominent artists from the Arab World.

Here, at the smaller exhibit in Bahrain, the visitor is led through a diverse selection of work and one that reiterates the varying and multifaceted nature of Saudi culture. Many pieces displayed echo of the politics of religion, our projected cultural stereotypes and modernity’s impact on tradition. Included are key investment pieces such as Ahmed Mater’s ‘The Evolution of Man’, which comprises of five signed silkscreen prints. The first of these shows an x-ray image of a man with a revolver. The subsequent prints depict the man ‘evolving’ into a petrol pump, which is an obvious reference to man’s self-destruction and oil dependency.

The exhibition itself begins with ‘Homage to Safeya Binzagr’, a selection of work by Binzagr which calls attention to her impact on contemporary Saudi art. A pioneer of the plastic art movement in the kingdom, she began her practice in the 1950s and graduated from Central St. Martins, London in the 1970s. Binzagr was a revolutionary: from the 1960s onwards she was well aware of the need to visualise the already dwindling culture of the Hijaz region, the traditions and importance of women in Saudi society, as well as the diverse heritage of the nation. Binzagr’s work emphasises the importance of preservation, remembrance and documentation. And so, in this respect, it seems unfounded to state that she was the ‘first Saudi female artist’, as this would ignore her unaccounted-for contemporaries – the female artists, artisans and craftswomen who may have practiced in her time, or even prior to this, but have not been recorded.

Saddek Wasil, known for his primitive designs created with variations of metal, also reflects the culture in which he was raised, in Mecca. ‘The Mask’, a metallic sculpture strewn with hammered holes, appears like a piece of primitive armor or a protective shield, its bolted nature suggestive of the society in which he still lives – one that is guarded, and as an ‘outsider’, nearly impossible to permeate.

From modernism towards more contemporary practice, we are then presented with the work of Nasser Al Salem who uses non-conventional mediums to present calligraphy and Islamic text, at times allowing the viewer to reinterpret and rethink a certain statement. ‘An Adornment of Stars’ (2014) projects a video loop of Quranic text in a circular form, some of which rotates. To some, the manner in which the projection spins could instigate a sense of unease or discomfort. On the contrary, to others, its rotation may generate a sense of calm. This contrast is suggestive of the misinterpretation of language, particularly that which is so often disputed. This sentiment is also reflected in Al Salem’s ‘God Will Raise Those Who Believe and Those Who are Given Knowledge by Degrees’ – which is perhaps a reference to education, knowledge and the written word.

Subtlety provides strength of meaning, particularly in Ibrahim Abumsmar’s ‘Cutting Edge’, a miniature wall made of razor blades. It bears reference to the Palestine Separation Wall, as it incorporates a tiny copy of the famed Banksy stencil of a young girl being carried by balloons up and nearly over the wall. Considering the context in which this work is created, could this then be a reference to the pressures and barriers inherently assumed upon young Saudi girls?

Mahdi Al Jeraibi’s work, less overtly refers to similar issues. From a distance, ‘Zincograph’ resembles the desert landscape with recesses, dunes and dust and its sensuous nature invites the viewer to approach it. What then become apparent are the layers of a transparent, resin-like material, intertwined hair and interspersed bodily residue. Simultaneously sensuous and grotesque, the attraction to the work lingers as one feels a need to study and touch a surface that evokes layers of forbidden flesh.

Displayed near these are a series of worn classroom desktops, also by Al Jeraibi, all uniquely beautiful. Each desktop, etched, scratched and worn after decades of use, are steeped in history and references to a bygone era. The totality of this work reflects what one hopes will be future of Saudi art – an acknowledgement of the past, an awareness of the need for cultural preservation and respect for the teachers, the thinkers, the learners and the creators that will influence future generations.
‘Modern and Contemporary Saudi Art, The Al Mansouria Collection’ is running until March 6 at the Bahrain National Museum, Al Fateh Highway (

By Time Out Bahrain staff
Time Out Bahrain,

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