The grant is one part of a critical turning point for the cultural scene in Saudi Arabia, Zedani said, ensuring artists are recognized for their role in a cultural revolution that’s an extension of the social changes being seen across the kingdom, including the 2018 decision that allowed women to drive—a freedom that sits uneasily alongside a continuing intolerance of political dissent.
The exhibition also marks what is believed to be the first time a sculpture of the human figure has been displayed in Riyadh.
More Room for Expression
Muhannad Shono, whose Book of Sand sculpture represents the kingdom’s Empty Quarter desert, feels the time has come for artists to come out of the shadows.
“We all grew up in an ‘old Saudi Arabia’ which was more restrictive and there was less room for expression,” he said. Artists did not feel appreciated or validated, “and it pushed everybody away,” physically or mentally. “Even if you couldn’t leave physically you were mentally not willing to engage or give back.” This “disconnect” led to a critical “bleed of talent outside the kingdom,” he added.
Now, things are happening in reverse, Shono believes. With this promise of change, more support, recognition and growth, Saudis are looking to return. “It’s amazing … to see how many people are actually packing up leaving L.A. and leaving Berlin, leaving Sharjah, leaving other parts of the world, and saying, I want to be part of this. … I’ve always wanted this as a dream, because we’ve always dealt with being marginalized. And now, here we are, and we’re in the forefront and it’s exciting, and we’re not going to miss it for anything.”
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Once deemed anti-Islamic under the strict regime, artists now feel more able to express themselves and find a balance between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. “I think the two can exist in harmony, and they have to because they’re both quite important to society,” said Shono. “Yes as artists we’re about challenging thoughts, pushing new ways of thinking, and you know, this simple act of just thinking used to be forbidden … but these things are happening naturally.”
Cultural changes such as women sitting freely in cafes and traveling to study abroad are all interwoven with this new artistic freedom, he said. “These are important things and they reflect in the arts. The art world is not this other world that is unaware of what’s happening around it.”
A Welcome Show of Support
Seeing artists supported by such major institutions as the Misk Art Institute will, in turn, help the momentum continue, said Zedani. In the past, families did not see art as a serious career for their children, not least a career with a financial incentive, so many talented artists would find other paths. In 2015, he was accepted to a master’s degree program at the Royal College of Arts in London, but there was no funding to support him, and he was advised to move into a track such as architecture if he wanted sponsorship.
What’s important now is ensuring that the support for the art scene remains focused on quality, said Shono, not simply trying to compensate for a 30-year void. “The spending needs to distinguish between investing money into younger emerging artists and people who are more established,” he said. “It was good that we went through this process of being rejected and unknown and kind of marginalized; that made us tougher, and that’s important. Now everything’s easy and funded and spaces are available, but without having this balance between established and new artists, the scene becomes weak, and that’s the risk.”
Mukooth continues through February 28 at Prince Faisal Bin Fahad Art Hall, in Riyadh. Profiles of the artists, videos and a booklet about the exhibition are available online.