Today, Saudi Arabia looms large in the collective American consciousness, eliciting effusive intrigue and occluded by misinformation in equal measure. These exterior narratives, often spun by media or politicians, are in flux; so too the perspective from the opposite end of the telescope – from inside looking out. By all accounts, it is a kingdom in rapid, irrepressible political, economic and social transformation.
As a young boy, the artist Ahmed Mater stood on the roof of his rural home, holding an antenna to the sky in search of music and dancing (banned on Saudi TV at that time, via a signal from Yemen or across the red-sea to Egypt; now he has easy access to the thoughts and ephemera of other cultures via the internet; it is a very different world. Yet, this swollen access demands its own negotiations; truths are lain bare as unilaterally as untruths and it is left to the reader, viewer, listener, online seeker on both sides of the border to make their own judgements amidst an overload of conflicting information.
For the first time in the U.S. capital, the works of Ahmed Mater (b. 1979) are presented with a solo exhibition of his sculptural works, photographs and videos. These perceptive documentary journeys open a new window to the geographical heart of Islam. ‘Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater’ presents unbiased visions from these unfamiliar territories. These are taught terrains riven by tension as traditional foundations confront and elide with contemporary life. Inside the frame, Mater captures the trauma of rapid development, seeks lost landscapes once familiarly navigated and maps the strange topography of vast empty deserts set obliquely against overcrowded, thronging cities. Unapologetic and honest, these representations of life in the Kingdom are exposed for American viewers.
‘Empty Land’ (2011) presents eerie aerial perspectives of abandoned desert cities, views which reify a lost past with curious detachment. In ‘Desert of Pharan’ (2011-13), Mater turns his perceptive lens to another kind of loss – that of historical Makkah, where rapidly constructed infrastructure, the march of the modern, encroaches on the past. Progressing from empty, abandoned sites through the the frenetic development of Mecca, the exhibition culminates with the ‘Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years,’ the first chapter in Mater’s latest project. Here he scrutinises the inexorable growth of Riyadh, the Kingdom’s administrative capital and largest city, tracing the fault lines of the traditional and the contemporary within the perpetual evolution of this seismic urban metropolis.
Mater is not only a leading artist in Saudi Arabia, but also a pioneer of exchange. Here, he invites the American public to approach with open minds. ‘Symbolic Cities’ demands a deeper respect and a more nuanced engagement through immersive, experiential works which generously encourage us to move away from a divisive sense of ‘them’ towards a richer and truer understanding of ‘us’.
“Mater brings the rigor of his training as a physician—as well as unparalleled access—to gather frank observations of his own time and place,” said exhibition curator Carol Huh, the Freer|Sackler’s curator for contemporary art. “The resulting imagery is straightforward and striking, while his newest research-based project presents another fascinating shift in his use of the photographic medium.”
‘Symbolic Cities’ is the second in a series of exhibitions highlighting artists and works in Freer|Sackler’s growing collection of contemporary photography.
‘Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater’ is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in collaboration with Culturunners in partnership with Art Jameel, a Community Jameel initiative. Generous exhibition support is also provided by Faisal Tamer and Sara Alireza; the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; and Jerome and Ellen Stern.