Ayman Saud Hafeth is taking a picture of himself outside London’s Arab British Centre. A Riyadh operations manager by day, he’s also the man behind two arresting, vibrant oil paintings hung inside the building which focus on the traditions and changes in modern-day Saudi Arabia. If the photo is an unashamedly celebratory moment – although pop-culture fans might like to note that it’s not quite a “selfie” – then Hafeth deserves it. He’s one of 10 winners in the British Council’s online art competition, Out of Arabia – the prize being the chance to exhibit and introduce his work to an international audience.
So Hafeth is within his rights to make the most of the Out of Arabia exhibition, which grew out of a show of British work from artists such as L S Lowry and the Turner Prize-winner Richard Long that toured Saudi Arabia last year.
“The original idea of Out of Britain, as we called it, was to explore the theme of the UK’s landscape with Saudi curators and the ways in which artists try to make sense of and interpret their immediate environment,” says the British Council’s head of art services, Sean Williams. “But we wanted to make this a genuinely two-way conversation, so we launched Out of Arabia as a concurrent online competition to get responses from Saudi artists to the landscape throughout the Arabian Peninsula.”
Williams says the creative response was “extraordinary”, ranging from desert photography by the motorcycle importer Abdulrahman Almutlak to architectural sculpture from the Riyadh teacher Talal Othman Altakhaes. “I guess that’s because landscape is such an interesting topic – everyone lives somewhere and has their own relationship to that place. What was most encouraging was that the work broke down traditional stereotypes about the Arabian Peninsula. It wasn’t all oases and dhows, or literal, coffee-table book images of the Gulf. Some of the painting styles are fantastic – the winner, Fahad Kholif, produced just the most extraordinary image of Mecca.”
“And I only got to hear about the competition from visiting the Out of Britain exhibition when it came to Jeddah,” adds Kholif. “But being able to show my work in London is a great opportunity, not just for myself but also because Out of Arabia can bridge East and West and showcase Saudi art in London – which I consider the city of art.”
It’s interesting that Kholif should talk of the possibilities that an exhibition such as this might offer artists such as him. After all, the evidence of recent years is that art from the region already has some traction. When Altakhaes introduced his pieces in London last week, he told the gathered audience that the market for art in Saudi is huge, the amount of collectors growing as demand increases. The general consensus on Friday was that, at one end of the scale, Saudi is experiencing a golden age of visual arts at international standard. And at the other, children from the age of 6 are being taught art at schools.
“The explosion of commercial art galleries in Riyadh, for example, has been quite dramatic,” agrees Williams. “There’s a real, renewed confidence in Arab art, which is great to see. But with Out of Arabia, we were really keen to find artists who weren’t represented by commercial galleries, who were perhaps working in isolation.”
Onwards they go
This effort to find new artists is all part of a drive towards a major exhibition in London in 2016, which will look at new contemporary art from the Arab world. If more painting from Kholif, or the collage-based photography of the Taif-based physiotherapist Ziyad Khader Al-Saadi, is included, then Out of Arabia will have been a success.
“Absolutely,” agrees Williams. “The basic remit of the British Council is to create opportunities for people to develop international relationships and these exhibitions in the UK give us the chance to understand these artists’ local contexts, how they create their art and what it means to them. Actually, it’s all part of an ongoing dialogue.”
• Out of Arabia: Landscape Throughout the Arabian Peninsula is at The Arab British Centre, London, from today until Friday. For more information, visit www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk