As the focus of next year’s Armory Show in New York demonstrates, the Middle East is clearly a rising force in contemporary art. In Saudi Arabia, this movement has largely been centred in Jeddah, although artists have recently begun to emerge in Riyadh, too, thanks in part to the city's youngest gallerist.
In 2012, when Neama Al-Sudairi was still in her thirties, she opened the Alāan Artspace to support the Saudi capital's nascent, proudly Saudi art scene, through exhibitions, events and a library. The gallery launched with an introductory exhibition that showcased work by three of the kingdom's female artists: Sarah Abu Abdallah, Sarah Mohanna Al-Abdali (both of whom the gallery represents) and Manal Al Dowayan.
Since then, the space has pursued an eclectic programme, including an exhibition of miniatures from Germany's Vitra Design Museum and QVOD VIDES, TOTVM (‘All that is seen’), devised by Italian photographic artist Teresa Emanuele. Earlier this year, the gallery hosted video installation The Question, previously seen at last year’s Venice Biennale, and created by another of its artists, Abdullah Al-Othman.
Alāan is now showing Muqeem (‘Prayer’), Series I, the debut exhibition by Ehab Mamdouh, and perhaps the gallery’s most challenging show yet. For unlike many of his peers, Mamdouh uses figurative images. The artist has lived most of his life in Saudi but was born in Egypt and remains influenced by its ancient pictographic heritage. Referencing the use of geometric patterns and religious practices in the artist’s home culture, Muqeem is a call for tolerance and understanding.
How did you become interested in contemporary art and then open your own gallery?
Neama Al-Sudairi: ‘I have always been interested in the arts and have been involved in making art at different times in my life. I have my own studio and artistic practice as a photographer, although lately most of my time has been spent directing the gallery. What really motivated me was that while Saudi, like every country, has always had art and culture, we haven’t until recently had anywhere to exhibit the art. And there is still no real system within Saudi schools to teach art or encourage and nurture the arts and young artists.’
'Alāan' means 'now' in Arabic. It suggests you are focusing on contemporary art.
‘Actually, our idea was to emphasise and express urgency: “more art now” in the kingdom and its capital, which is catching up a full decade after the art scene in Jeddah hit the map.’
Why call it an art space rather than simply a gallery?
‘Our vision as a multi-dimensional space is to showcase art, present a much-needed arts education for all ages and nurture creativity wherever we find it, among artists and designers alike. And our vibe is welcoming — we want all to join in. We do this by gathering people from different walks of life and backgrounds for artists’ conversations, guest talks, workshops and children’s art classes. This is a new concept and experience in Riyadh.’
Organisations such as Edge of Arabia talk about a dialogue between western and eastern art. How important is that for Alāan?
‘Honestly, we don’t think too much about the political or global context, though we recognise that one of the defining characteristics of contemporary art is its global nature. Our approach is mostly concerned with bringing people and art together for inspiration and discovery — and to open a dialogue between places where art can affect and change humanity, one person at a time. Those places are often the geographies of the human heart and the intellect. As I see it, there has been an open and ongoing dialogue between eastern and western art for a long time, with boundaries blurred between geographies. A full-on dialogue opened a full decade ago, in 2004, when the Internet, quickly followed by the explosion of social media, became available to everyone in this part of the world.’
What do you look for in artists and how do you bring their work to a wider audience?
‘We don't limit ourselves to a particular style. We want to see diverse work that surprises us and communicates depth of feeling. We are less impressed with images of people; usually celebrities or models pulled off the web or copied from magazines and somehow altered. We see a lot of this kind of work. It looks the same, and feels shallow and unoriginal. If an artist’s work has depth and maturity then it stands out from the rest and we are interested in promoting it in our gallery space and at art fairs.’
Your current exhibition features Mamdouh's figurative forms, something that is normally avoided in Islamic art. What is the thinking behind that?
‘Banning the use of the human figure encouraged an alternative visual language, the intricate geometric motifs and flowering vines you see in mosques, rugs and calligraphy. That tradition continues today, but Ehab has been experimenting to find a new visual language to communicate an aspect of faith and practice. In fact, he used his own body for outlines. So on another level, the images can be read as self-portraits, another way that Mamdouh breaks free from our constraints.’
Finally, what are your plans for Alāan?
‘That’s simple to answer: we want to keep going. We want to create a sustainable gallery that nurtures creativity and helps support artists in our own country and throughout the Middle East.’