With Al Hangar, 15 Young Artists Are Changing the Face of the Saudi Art Scene
Last May, 15 young Saudi artists rented a former shelter for widows in Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad area. It had a charm about it: rustic and unfinished, many likened it to a Venetian palazzo. Led by Ramy Alquthamy, Nasser Al Salem and a few others, they called their initiative “Al Hangar,” meaning warehouse in Arabic, a moniker meant to insinuate speed vis-à-vis temporality.
They rented the space for 10 days at a fee of $3000, money they’d secured from a Saudi art patron. Some had priced their artworks, others hadn’t, and each occupied a six-square-meter room. The point was to “ignite a sense of community,” says Al Salem. “Recently, it’s been ‘to each his own,’ a form of selfishness even, with very individual practices.”
The inaugural show, aptly titled “Bismillah”—a common phrase in the Islamic world used when embarking on something—did not feature a theme, nor did it present the curatorial influence of a gallerist. “We wanted to exhibit independently and show that there is an underground Saudi art scene,” says Alquthamy. Artists are individually invited to show work at Al Hangar, similarly to a biennial. And so far, they’ve been inundated with requests to participate, an indication of both the buzz around the alternative space, and the growing energy around Saudi’s art scene. “Bismillah” was an achievement, attracting Jeddah’s intelligentsia and enthusiasts, who flocked to see what some of the Kingdom’s bohemians had conjured. “I was absolutely blown away,” recalls Sara Tamer, art patron and member of the Saudi Art Council, which is behind 21,39, the non-profit initiative that promotes arts and culture in Jeddah.
Nine months later, Al Hangar staged their sophomore show to coincide with the third edition of 21,39. This time, largely thanks to art consultant and curator Maryam Beydoun, a friend and confidant to many an emerging Saudi artist, they secured a space parallel to Tahlia, the Red Sea port city’s retail artery. The unfinished 800-square-meter plot in an office building belongs to Beydoun’s family and was graciously donated pro bono for a month. “The space was perfect,” says Beydoun. “I felt that they could interact with a raw area.”
The artists sought funding for electricity, bringing in about $5500 from Qaswra Hafez, founder of Hafez Gallery. This time, however, members of the international art community viewed Al Hangar’s show; among them were Dr Venetia Porter of the British Museum, the Tate’s Chris Dercon, the Pompidou’s Catherine David, and Oussama Rifahi of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC). Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, who are set to curate the 2017 edition of 21,39, also stopped by.
Over two floors, 15 artists presented some of the most exciting conceptual art in the region. Alquthamy showcased Betra of Peace (2016), a set of 12 concrete blocks of the kind used in the Kingdom to identify where a plot of land begins and ends. Numbered, he inscribed each with “Al Salaam,” the Arabic word for peace, and in doing so, interrogated the concepts of politics, land ownership, and geography. “This is about how man made barriers,” says Alquthamy. He has sold pieces to collectors in New York, Dubai, and Jeddah and intends to create a Google map of where these blocks find homes, in the hope that barriers extend beyond their boundaries. “What is important is that one takes this concept across borders,” he says.
Hanging on a wall is Al Salem’s green neon Arabi/Gharbi (2016), meaning Arabic/Westerner. In Arabic, the first letter for both words is differentiated by a dot, which flashes against the bare brick wall. “I’m talking about Jeddah, how some orient to the West and others to the East,” he says.
Down a set of perilous stairs are more works. (One would be forgiven for assuming that the wrappers strewn about and wires bunched around the transitional space are an installation.) In the corner is an arresting work by Ahmad Angawi, who, as a child, accompanied his architect father to Mecca to inspect a home believed to have been that of Khadijah, wife of the prophet Mohammed, where a pattern appeared in the wall niche that points to the direction of Mecca. Over two decades later, Angawi gathered his father’s archival images as well as newspaper clippings of this site and in a small, fanned room presents these images, viewable with a flashlight to hit home the idea of archaeology and clandestine activity. In the corner is a Plexiglas replica of the motif, shining through a light. It is at once majestic and holy, but also a denunciation of Mecca’s rapid urbanization.
Al Hangar impressed many, so much so that AFAC instantly matched the cost of the exhibition on condition that the next show is well-documented and that the artist collective works to match AFAC’s donation from five local donors. At the time of writing, two had committed. “I wish I could see more groups coalescing elsewhere, invading raw spaces and just doing that: expressing, producing, oblivious of collectors and art professionals,” says Oussama Rifahi, executive director of AFAC. The Shubbak Festival has also approached Al Hangar, and so far, possible plans include theater, performance, and more community-led activities. “Our manifesto is that this is a cultural movement,” says Al Salem. “We believe in each artist’s autonomy and in each other.”