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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

How Saudi artists aim to shift perceptions

Three young women portray the changing landscape between past and present at the Shubbak festival

The Silver Plate (2017) b Reem Al-Nasser. Courtesy Reem Al Nasser
The Silver Plate (2017) b Reem Al-Nasser. Courtesy Reem Al Nasser

Shift marks the UK debut for three young female artists from Saudi Arabia: Zahrah Al Ghamdi, Dana Awartani and Reem Al Nasser. The exhibition opened in London on July 1 as part of the Arab contemporary cultural festival, Shubbak.

Collectively, the women’s artwork reflects their experiences of living in largely domestic spaces, caught between a future driven by globalisation, marked by rapid social change, and a past defined by a strong sense of cultural heritage and tradition that is now under threat.

Held at the Mosaic Rooms, a non-commercial institution committed to giving artists the opportunity to showcase and create new works, these three artists’ work pushes their own boundaries by creating site-specific installations.

Al Ghamdi, a conceptual artist, has made a piece called Cell of the City. It is an iteration of an installation she exhibited in March last year as part of Dubai’s Art Week.

Made from long ropes of raw cloth coated with sand and clay, the piece hangs suspended from the wall. Stemming from a fascination with the way the land she inhabits is always changing, the artwork will deteriorate over the course of the exhibition, shedding sand onto the floor and therefore offering new perspectives.

“There is something about the temporal nature of the sand that, combined with its permanence, makes it very interesting,” explains Rachael Jarvis, the show’s curator and the director of the Mosaic Rooms.

“Zahrah is very much concerned with the memory of material and in this case the land. Even though the traditional architecture of her village is under threat, this is a way to make sense of how memories of the land can exist even after it’s gone.”

The loose material is also a central part of the second and incredibly intricate installation made by Awartani. Well known in the region for her delicate artworks based on Islamic geometry, Awartani is exhibiting an installation named: I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.

A still from Dana Awartani's 2016 film, 'I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.' Courtesy Andy Stagg / The Mosaic Rooms.
A still from Dana Awartani's 2016 film, 'I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.' Courtesy Andy Stagg / The Mosaic Rooms.

Its main component is sand, which the artist hand-dyes and then painstakingly layers it upon the ground so it resembles traditional floor tiles, designed in an Islamic geometric pattern. It was exhibited earlier this year at Jeddah’s 21,39 festival during which she also staged a performance and swept the sand away.

A comment upon the fragility of heritage and tradition as well as the dynamic nature of her society, this art work is both a wonderfully poetic gesture and testament to her growing talent.

For the London exhibition, Awartani has installed the tile-work of sand and it will remain for the duration of the show. A video of the performance in Jeddah is playing alongside it.

Al Nasser’s work titled The Silver Plate is a three-part multimedia installation representing the past, present and future. The artwork reflects on the process of needing to negotiate the past in order to be able to move towards the future.

“In a way, the other two are about physical material and have social concerns, but Reem’s work is about an emotive space and how you internally deal with anxiety and fear and what sources that comes from,” explains Jarvis. “There is a tension between distance and memory.”

Downstairs in the gallery, a dual-screen video installation plays Al Nasser’s representation of the past, and as the viewer descends the stairs to find it, an audio piece depicting the artist’s perception of the present whispers in Arabic.

After the experience of negotiating the push and pull between past and present, the visitor takes away a printed booklet that represents the future, and so, the cycle of the artwork is complete.

To take part in Shubbak and to be allowed such creative freedom at a crucial time in their careers is sure to be a really positive step for the artists.

“All three have particularly strong individual practices and are at the stage that they warrant this kind of international platform,” says Jarvis.

“We try to make this the focus of our work at the Mosaic Rooms in general and we are pleased to be bringing this opportunity to these strong female artists.”

Shift runs until September 2 at the Mosaic Rooms, London www.shubbak.co.uk/shift

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