DETROIT (AP) – A U.S. exhibition featuring the works of roughly 40 Saudi Arabian artists aims to share their expressions, foster conversations and challenge conceptions of life in the conservative Islamic nation.
“Epicenter X: Saudi Contemporary Art” opens July 8 and runs for about three months at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It will feature photographic and video installations as well as murals exploring themes of urbanization, globalization, religion and the impact of U.S. culture on a restrictive Saudi society that’s loosened somewhat when it comes to arts and entertainment.
It’s among the first and largest U.S. shows featuring a group of contemporary Saudi Arabian artists, some of whom have had their work exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and elsewhere. It’s also a big score for the Smithsonian-affiliated Arab museum in a Detroit suburb that can lay claim to being the capital of Arab America.
“I think there’s a lot changing in Saudi Arabia right now,” museum Director Devon Akmon said. “What I find really interesting is obviously the role of the artist in society, regardless of where they are. They are chroniclers of our time – they bear witness, they reflect, they speak about contemporary issues. That’s exactly what many of the artists in this show are doing.”
Themes explored in the exhibit include the role of urbanization and changing landscapes in cities and the impact of religion on society. Akmon said many Americans are neither “attuned to” those issues in Saudi Arabia nor aware that artists are “giving voice to these discussions.”
Akmon said he and his colleagues worked closely on the exhibit with the Saudi Arabia-based King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, known as Ithra. He said museum officials were clear in conversations that they would be curating the exhibit and had “a message to share that could not be interfered with.” The museum also expressed its desire to display a wide array of artwork representing a diversity of artists, including women.
“It was a very collaborative process – they were very open to how we wanted to portray this,” he said.
Among the pieces that will be on display is “Digital Spirituality” by Amr Alngmah, which places the cube-shaped Kaaba in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca – Islam’s most sacred site – in the middle of a circuit board. Akmon calls it a commentary on “how technology is becoming a religion in our lives.”
Another artist involved in the exhibition is Ayman Yossri Daydban, who also is the museum’s current artist in residence. He will have three photographic works in the exhibit and will be staging two solo shows. Daydban, whose last name means “watchman” in Arabic, has been encouraged to use the museum’s exhibits and archives and surrounding communities as his “studio,” as he creates or collaborates on numerous multimedia projects.
“I have had many residencies, including in Dubai, Berlin and Paris,” Daydban said with the help of an interpreter. “This is the first time when I feel like I becoming younger, and I find it very refreshing. This residency makes me feel brave to ask questions.”
Although Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on freedom and ban on women driving often grab headlines, Akmon said his visit to the kingdom earlier this opened his eyes to the burgeoning, expressive art scene in Jeddah featuring men and women. He hopes that visitors to the exhibit experience that as well.
“It was essentially discovery – getting an introduction to some of the ideas of the Saudi people that was unfiltered, so to speak,” he said. “That’s exactly what people will see when they come to the gallery – a range of ideas and philosophies emerging.”
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