It’s often the case that a different, arguably deeper, understanding of a country can come from its arts and culture, not least the contemporary art that is being produced. At a time of such momentous political, economic and cultural change, “Saudi Cultural Days” was very much about struggles to reconcile personal, religious and national identity expressed through a range of media and styles, from traditional textiles to cubism and abstract expressionism. Muhannad Shono, for example, is a naturalized Saudi citizen to parents of Chechyen and Karachay-Cherkessian descent and his work has at its core issues of identity. “Children of Yam” examines immigration and the feeling of being alone and alienated from the community.
Religious themes were explored in imaginative ways. In “Shortcut, 2015” Rashed Al Shashai took a shape based on what is believed to be a drawing in the sand by the prophet, a simple message depicting the “straight path” and three off shoots depicting what it means to stray from it and put the shape in bright LED lights dramatically lighting up the path. Moath Alofi’s haunting set of documentary photographs captured desolate mosques small isolated buildings on barren landscapes in what he described as “a bridge between the heavens and the earth”. Given that the lifting of many restrictions on women has perhaps been receiving most attention in the world’s view of Saudi Arabia, the work of the kingdom’s female artists was particularly relevant. Nabila Al Bassam travelled to cities in the kingdom to learn about local women’s traditions and techniques in the production of Al Sadu weaving, local textiles and popular clothing. Dania Al Saleh focuses her work on the use of geometry as a communicative tool, using patterns and colours with mathematic precision while Dana Awartani’s videos combined Islamic geometry with performance, connecting the sacred and the contemporary. Saudi Cultural Days” was an intriguing mix of traditional and contemporary. Film screenings included an opportunity, via a virtual reality headset, to join pilgrims on their visits to Mecca and Medina while upstairs from the artworks there was continuous music-making including jazzrock fusions. “Our goal in London” said Ahmed Al Maziad, chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s General Culture Authority, “is to showcase both our history and contemporary Saudi culture.”