Advertisement
Art

10 Standout Artists at the Inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale

Nadine Khalil
Feb 2, 2023 5:39PM

Studio Bound, installation view of City as a Mosque, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Arts Biennale (IAB), on view in Jeddah through April 23rd, is best experienced at night. The outdoor works, subject to the rising and setting sun, are heightened by light and sound. During the day, narrow streams of sunlight pour through the small oculi in the space’s canopied roof, evoking sundials and the way times for prayer are dictated by natural light.

Housed within an annual transit point for pilgrimage—King Abdulaziz International Airport’s as-yet-unused Western Hajj Terminal—IAB’s inaugural edition is led by artistic director Sumayya Vally alongside a curatorial team of prominent architects, archaeologists, and Islamic art historians. Divided into central religious tenets, the exhibition is presented under the theme of Awwal Bait, a transliteration of “First House” in Arabic. It also complicates the notion of “house”—which traditionally refers to the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam that Muslims orient towards during prayer—to include more abstract notions of ritual both inside and outside the body, within and beyond linear time.

The historical artifacts on view—almost 300 in total and mostly in a satellite exhibition that brings together Islamic art collections from Kuwait, Egypt, Tunisia, Qatar, Oman, Mali, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan—chart a lineage of Islamic arts in what otherwise feels like a contemporary show about lived traditions in different contexts and geographies. The resulting presentation has provoked a lot of debate among thinkers and curators from the region about how inclusive visions of Islamic art can be today vis-à-vis the previously monolithic ways in which religion was practiced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Below, we share 10 standout artists and collectives from IAB’s inaugural edition.


Wael Shawky

Venue: Under the Canopy

Theme: Hijrah (Migration)

Wael Shawky, installation view of In the Sound of the Muzdalifah, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Advertisement

In Wael Shawky’s conjuring of a childhood memory of an open plain near Mecca filled with the sound of locusts and nighttime prayers, three steel lampposts lean towards the ground before moving back to their upright position. The hypnotic, kinetic sculpture, In the Sound of the Muzdalifah (2023), is driven by synchronized motors held by concrete foundations, and suggests the movement of a reversed pendulum.

Paired with Noura Al Sayeh-Holtrop’s Friday Sermon (2023)—an installation of speakers that voice fast-paced recordings of Friday assemblies, which occur before noon prayers—the painstaking movement in Shawky’s work feels even more surreal.


Dima Srouji

Venue: Under the Canopy

Theme: Hijrah (Migration)

Dima Srouji, installation view of the verso of Maintaining the Sacred, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

Dima Srouji, installation view of Maintaining the Sacred, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

Dima Srouji has pieced together fragments of colored glass, replicas of the 30 destroyed windows in Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque during an Israeli incursion in Jerusalem on April 15, 2022. The resulting work, Maintaining the Sacred (2023), gleams as if it were an altarpiece. In this gesture towards repair, which in reality would take 15 years to complete (six months to individually inset each stone-carved window with glass), a broken world is reconstituted with neat yet asymmetrical compositions.

The work’s arched form signals classic Islamic architectural motifs while indentations in the wood-and-plaster structure take a kintsugi-like approach. Best of all is the way the back of the piece reads like an intricate openwork in stained glass.


Bricklab

Venue: Under the Canopy

Theme: Hijrah (Migration)

Bricklab, installation view of Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

Bricklab, installation view of Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

The scaffolding structure created by Jeddah-based architecture and urban research studio Bricklab, founded by brothers Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz, also responds to acts of destruction but in an unexpected archival form. In Air Pilgrims Accommodation 1958 (2023), viewers see—through a passageway—sets of keys, documents, an ornate door, and other found memorabilia retrieved from a late 1950s building complex that housed pilgrims, the last of which was demolished in December of last year.

Accompanied by oral histories and recorded interviews, the installation traces the relocation of infrastructure, created to manage the influx of Muslim pilgrims undertaking the hajj to city outskirts following modernization in the 1950s—a move that hindered the ability of travelers to engage with Jeddah’s urban fabric. Experiencing this work is like walking through an incomplete archive of the haunting traces travelers leave behind.


Joe Namy

Venue: Gallery 1

Theme: Adhan (The Call)

Joe Namy, installation view of Cosmic Breath, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Cosmic Breath (2023), Joe Namy’s installation of 18 loudspeakers, rings powerfully in synchrony while indexing divergences and lags in the tonality of adhan, or calls to prayer, in 18 geographic locations in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The Lebanese artist’s work references sonic histories from sources ranging from a late 19th-century recording at the Great Mosque of Mecca to the first mosque in Singapore to use a loudspeaker.

Paired with Cosmic Breath is Nora Alissa’s black-and-white projection series “Epiphamania: The First Light”(2011–23). Alissa’s photo-documentation of pilgrims at the Great Mosque of Mecca, covertly filmed through the artist’s clothing, features blurry figures in motion. Staged within the Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s dark scenography, a soft sculpture of blackout felt curtains, the pairing of Alissa’s and Namy’s works felt particularly immersive and intimate, with hearing through darkness likened to seeing through material.


Basmah Felemban

Venue: Gallery 1

Theme: Adhan (The Call)

Basmah Felemban, installation view of Wave Catcher, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Sueraya Shaheen. Courtesy of Sueraya Shaheen.

Another contemporary draft on the call to prayer, which adheres to the maqam rhythms that punctuate Arabic melodies, is Basmah Felemban’s Wave Catcher (2023), a hanging floor-to-ceiling sculpture of oval-shaped vessels beautifully crafted out of teak wood. Their varying elevations and forms, which intimate the pitch and duration of calls to prayer at different times of day, are set to an oceanic soundscape. Something about this work felt like listening to magnified seashells.

Positioned just after a historical collection of engraved metal astrolabes that hearken back to the height of Islamic astronomy, Wave Catcher can also be seen as the material translation of tools for scientific measurement.


Yazid Oulab

Venue: Gallery 2a

Theme: Wudu’ (Purification)

Yazid Oulab, installation view of “Les Orants Habités Par Leur Espace I-VI,” 1998, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Two minimalist bodies of work by Yazid Oulab stood out for their stunning simplicity. The first, “Les Orants Habités Par Leur Espace I-VI” (1998), is a series of works on paper that feature outlined figures in kneeling, rising, and prostrating positions. Made using olive oil, an aura-like radiation in amber hues is seen emitting from the bodies posed in prayer. Resembling the light brown rings of a tree, they speak to the idea of rootedness and embodiment.

Meanwhile, in the Algerian artist’s other series of ink drawings on paper, “Elévation, Sur la Ligne 1, Sur la Ligne 2, Méditation 2, Résonance 1, Résonance 2” (2006), repetitive lines and brushstrokes create abstracted gatherings of seemingly solitary devotees.


Digital Arts Lab (DAL)

Venue: Gallery 2b

Theme: Salat (Prayer)

Digital Arts Lab, installation view of Tazaamun, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Digital Arts Lab (DAL) is a Saudi collective comprising of researcher Lama bint Mansour, artist Eyad Maghazil, designer Mohammad Jastaniah, and musician Mothanna Anber. Their room-sized light-art installation Tazaamun (2023), presented in the biennale, was all about space and sky.

Picturing a single white sun on a central screen that changes color against a bright background, the work has the hazy feel of an eternal day. Produced by solar panels, its modulated sound indicates a celestial relationship to prayer times, a recurring theme throughout the biennale.


Igshaan Adams

Venue: Gallery 3a

Theme: Salat al-Jama’ah (Congregational Prayer)

Igshaan Adams, installation view of Salat al-jama’ah, 2023, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Photo by Nadine Khalil.

For Salat al-jama’ah (2023), the title of which references the Friday sermon, Igshaan Adams collected 52 prayer rugs from friends and family in Cape Town’s Bonteheuwel district, a former township where people of color were relegated by the apartheid regime. These rugs became the basis for templates from which he created new tapestries.

Introducing thread, dye, wire, beads, and semiprecious stones, Adams obscures the original patterns on the prayer rugs, though viewers can still make out woven patches worn out at the edges from use. Reflecting the traces of hands and feet in prayer, and embodying the repetitive gestures performed on rugs that are rolled up and carried wherever Muslims go, the work reclaims a kind of nomadic spirituality through aesthetic displacement in the wake of apartheid’s physical displacement.


Haroon Gunn-Salie

Venue: Gallery 3b

Theme: Ajal (The Allotted Span)

Haroon Gunn-Salie, installation view of Amongst Men, 2014/23, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Hanging from the ceiling at varying heights are 1,000 kufi caps casting ghostly shadows on the floor. In Amongst Men (2014/23), Haroon Gunn-Salie pays homage to South African imam Abdullah Haron, whom he was named after. Here, he reimagines the freedom fighter’s funeral—a gathering of 40,000 people in defiance of apartheid-based violence after Haron was arrested and beaten to death by Cape Town police in 1969.

The mourners are represented in Gunn-Salie’s installation with disembodied all-white caps worn by Muslim men in Africa and Asia. However, a closer look reveals individualized embroideries on each headwear.

Amongst Men is poignantly positioned next to an archaeological presentation: a selection of preserved tombstones from Al-Ma’la, Mecca’s oldest cemetery and the resting place for the Prophet’s Companions and people who died during pilgrimage.


Ayman Yossri Daydban

Venue: Gallery 4

Theme: Bait (House of Allah)

Ayman Yossri Daydban, installation view of Ihramat, 2012, at the Islamic Arts Biennale, 2023. Courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

Ayman Yossri Daydban’s Ihramat (2012) also abstractly conjures male bodies through traditional clothing. The Jeddah-based Palestinian artist juxtaposes six samples of all-white, embossed pilgrimage attire, or ihramat, worn by men on a flight to Jeddah. Stretched on rectangular wooden panels, they become an inverted, stepped pyramid in the IAB’s final exhibition room, which is covered in white sheets of paper.

The biennale culminates with Daydban’s work facing a mid-20th-century gilded Kaaba door, commissioned by the first King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud. Evoking the Kaaba, or the House of God, this gateway is significant for Muslims because it designates the moment of arrival. Highly adorned, the door represents an entrypoint into another spiritual realm, an accrual of sorts, while Daydban’s understated monochrome textiles mark a cleansing, a removal, the start of the journey.

Nadine Khalil

Correction: This article has been updated to more accurately describe the components of Igshaan Adams’s “Salat al-jama’ah.”