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Saudi Arabia’s art scene is no longer a blank canvas

I have witnessed the evolution of the Saudi art scene for the better part of two decades, and I can safely say there has not been a more exciting time for the country’s art to flourish and come into its own than today.

I remember fifteen years ago, when I was a young editor at a leading English daily. Under the fluorescent lights of the harshly lit newsroom, a young physician was at my cubicle showing me images of x-rays revealing some distorted object that I couldn’t seem to define. While his English wasn’t very strong, his passion was easily translatable. The young man was none other than now-renowned Saudi artist, Ahmed Matter. Shortly after meeting him, his debut work, Evolution of Man, soon became one of the most successful works of contemporary art to come out of the Middle East.

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A year later, another young man--this time, an officer in the military, was making waves with his installations, Siraat (The Path) and Flora & Fauna (2007). These works later became a stepping stone for his following masterpieces, Message Messenger (2010) and The Stamp (2013). This bold artist is now the highest-selling Saudi artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, whose Riyadh-based studio has become known for turning out cool, young Saudi talent.

Both of these established and internationally sought after artists took the plunge and quit their professions in order to become full time artists, at a time when the Saudi art scene was stagnant. It was resting in the comfort of the late 60’s movement of Saudi’s Plastic Art, founded by Abdulhalim Radwi, but preserved by mostly female artists, such as Nawal Mustafa Mosalli.

While these artists and their works were accepted by the local community for their unique perspectives and nationalism, they also fitted within the confines of topics that were easily digestible for everyone.

Together, this local art collective that has been in the making for over sixty years has transformed itself in today’s manifestation of government-led art residences, privately-owned artist studios, and international initiatives that are transforming the regional artistic landscape.

Today, Saudi artists like Abdullah Qandeel want to take it a step further. Born in Saudi Arabia and educated in the UK, Qandeel’s creative career began in a studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Since then, his abstract expressionist paintings have been displayed in many countries, with several, such as The Race (2015) and The Enemy Within (2019) achieving considerable sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips.

Qandeel is on a mission to empower emerging artists in Saudi Arabia and beyond to commercialize their art wholly by launching a creative ecosystem that will connect creators directly with collectors, and allow them to sell their art - physical and digital - while fully protecting their rights.

While the recent focus has been on preserving our heritage and incorporating our traditions in all aspects of our creative domains; even more factual is our push toward the future, through innovative approaches and new capabilities, the possibilities are endless and the integration of the tech and creative industries is seamless.

At the forefront of this movement is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who has positioned itself as a cultural leader in the region, well-armed with creative talent and technological acumen. Even a global pandemic hasn’t been able to slow Saudi down, as witnessed by exhibitions such as the Saudi Art Council’s 21'39, which is opening tonight in Jeddah and BrickLab’s Saudi Modern scheduled for next month; the creative momentum seems to be in full swing.

And with government-led support in various forms, such as Art Riyadh and the MISK Art Initiatives, we are only at the beginning of the Kingdom’s full potential to become the cultural capital of the region. With this new reign comes a hope that Khaleeji artists will no longer be stereotyped into descriptions comparing Western values against their own because their authentic narratives can no longer be ignored. It’s a renaissance that will catapult Saudi to where it is no longer playing catch up, but rather leading the future of art in the region.

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