Artist Ahmed Mater: ‘When you go to Mecca, it’s as if you were inside a huge magnetic field’

The multidisciplinary artist, who is also a doctor, speaks to Christie’s about the intersection between visual culture and science, ‘the energy of attraction’ and the burgeoning Saudi art scene

Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), Magnetism (Triptych), 2021, detail

Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), Magnetism (Triptych), 2021 (detail). Sold for £189,000 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s in London

Ahmed Mater was born in Tabuk in the north-west of Saudi Arabia in 1979, and grew up near the city of Abha in the south-west of the country. His father was a sergeant in the army and his mother was a calligrapher and artist.

After training as a doctor, Mater studied at the Al-Meftaha Arts Village, where he began using discarded X-rays from the local hospital to make art. The culmination of this practice was the powerful installation Evolution of Man (2010), in which an X-ray of a man holding a gun is transformed into a petrol pump.

The artwork was made in the year in which Mater was stationed on the militarised border between Yemen and Saudi, treating injured soldiers from both sides of the conflict. ‘I have two very separate lives,’ he says of his dual career as a doctor and an artist. ‘One is very objective. The other, subjective.’

Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), Evolution of Man, 2010. Silkscreen print on 400GSM Somerset Tub paper, in five parts. Each: 31½ x 23⅝ in (80 x 60 cm). Estimate: $12,000-18,000. Offered in Modern & Contemporary Art Dubai until 31 May 2024 at Christie’s Online

Mater’s long-running Magnetism series, first exhibited as an installation at the Venice Biennale in 2009, is inspired by the complex rituals of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in which worshippers circle the cube-shaped shrine known as the Kaaba in an anti-clockwise direction.

Variations of the work were subsequently shown at the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Arab American National Museum in Detroit — and in 2016, Mater became the first Saudi artist to have a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

In June 2023, ahead of the sale of Magnetism (Triptych) (2021) at Christie’s in London, the artist spoke to us about his work.

Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), Magnetism (Triptych), 2021. Photographic print in artist’s frame, in three parts. Overall: 53⅞ x 125¾ in (136.7 x 319.3 cm). Sold for £189,000 on 28 June 2023 at Christie’s in London

Where does your need to make art come from?

Ahmed Mater: I grew up in Rijal Almaa. It is a beautiful mountain village and the complete opposite of the stereotypical image people have of Saudi Arabia. It is a land of terraced fields, mountains and greenery. I grew up listening to the sound of shepherds calling to their flocks on the mountain ranges, and the sound of the wind through the trees. The agricultural environment of my childhood has had a profound influence on my artistic practice.

My mother was a major influence on me. She was a painter, and it was customary for women in our village to decorate the interior walls of their homes with a traditional pattern called ‘Al-Qatt’. I was fascinated by my mother’s work, and I began to experiment with different painting techniques.

How has your study of medicine influenced your practice?

AM: It has given me a different perspective on art. I am fascinated by the intersection between science and contemporary art. I’m particularly interested in the use of physics in art, combining these two seemingly disparate disciplines.

Being a doctor gave me an interest in photography. I began studying and experimenting with X-rays. I was interested in the way X-rays can reveal the hidden structures of objects and capture a different perspective of an image as a form of diagnosis.

I see my photographs as diagnostic. I am not interested in creating a static or aesthetic image.

Ahmed Mater with Magnetism, 2009, an installation of iron filings and magnets. A unique work from a variation of five plus one artist’s proof, it sold for £100,000 on 24 November 2020 at Christie’s Online

How did you come to be involved with the movement Edge of Arabia?

AM: Despite its youth, the Saudi art scene is a laboratory of experimental practices. It is vibrant and energetic. There has been a noticeable change in the past five years in terms of appreciation for art and support from the government.

Edge of Arabia was a grassroots experimental project [established by Mater and British artist Stephen Stapleton] that aimed to take Saudi art beyond borders and connect with the international community.

We were the first generation of artists in the region to be connected through technology — the first internet generation. We wanted to position ourselves as protagonists in that moment in history. We felt so much on the periphery of the main conversation at the time.

Thankfully, it has been a successful movement. We have built an interactive audience online, as well as one that comes to our exhibitions and passes through our educational programmes.

The shrine known as the Kaaba is the central focus of Muslims on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia

The shrine known as the Kaaba is the central focus of Muslims on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Reza / Getty Images

Can you tell us something about the creative process behind Magnetism, and the messages you hoped to communicate?

AM: I’m interested in the energy of attraction. When I was a child, my parents told me that when you go to Mecca you feel like you’re being pulled towards the Kaaba, as if you were inside a huge magnetic field.

That image stayed with me like a small dream that I wanted to reassemble in my work. It is why I keep researching the energy of attraction and its spiritual connection to my memory.

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Magnetism is a very emotional work. It is not just a physical representation of attraction. It is also a spiritual representation of attraction and love.

The inspiration came from a game we used to play as kids at school. We would spread iron filings out on a desk and then use a magnet underneath to move them about. I would imagine the tiny iron filings as people moving, walking and running.

I believe that artists are a reflection of their society: their work often mirrors the social and spiritual changes that are taking place within it.

Ahmed Mater’s 2010 work Evolution of Man is offered in Modern & Contemporary Art Dubai, open for bidding online until 31 May 2024. The sale is on view at Christie’s in Dubai until 31 May

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