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Saudi Women Artists Address the Perils of Globalization and Urban Development

From Dana Awartani’s “I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming.” (The Mosaic Rooms)

by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi

“Shift” is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Saudi women artists. Featuring the phenomenal Dana Awartani, Zahrah al-Ghamdi and Reem Al-Nasser, it explores the impact of globalization and rapid social change on memory and heritage. The viewer is invited on a journey from the present to the past and back again, all the while being confronted with the very timely question: what is the true cost of the pursuit of “modernity”?

In Zahra Al-Ghamdi’s Cell of the City, the material tells much of the story. The work is a large wall installation comprising layers of locally sourced sand, clay and cloth. In bright yellows, pinks, greens and muddy clay brown, the materials call to mind traditional South West Saudi Arabian architecture. The past is juxtaposed against the present, which is laden with industrial contemporary structures and facades. With one part of the installation hanging on the wall, and parts of it leaching into the ground, Cell of the City is a story of architectural destruction. The artwork deteriorates over the course of the exhibition, a lot like us and life itself. Its transience stands in contrast with the memory of the land that it evokes, which lingers even after the land is gone.

“I want to tell the story and preserve the memory of traditional architecture. I want to apologise for its loss. All my work reflects the traditions and the emotions of the past. I know the past is gone but I want to remember the traditional house I grew up in in Saudi Arabia. I want to wake the people up and ask them to preserve the past because if the past goes away it cannot be replaced,” Ghamdi said to the Arab Weekly.

The sand motif, pregnant with notions of home and memory, can be also found in Dana Awartani’s installation. Titled ‘I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you,’ the work comprises two interesting parts. The first is a video installation shot in old Jeddah, wherein the artist is seen sweeping away tessellated, hand-dyed sand that resembles traditional Islamic tiled floor. The sand tiles we see in the film are recreated in a small gallery alongside the main exhibition space, forming the second part of the installation. The fragility of the sand tiles that appear on the gallery floor resonates with the momentous act of sweeping on film, echoing the state of cultural heritage and tradition in the context of rapid urban development. Subtle yet poignant, the work evokes the destruction of memory and erasure of self.

The exhibition continues in the downstairs gallery of the Mosaic Rooms, where the visitor encounters Reem Al-Nasser’s multimedia installation. The work brings together the past (an audio piece), the present (dual screen video installation) and the future (a printed booklet). In one video, fingers coloured with henna are drumming on a silver plate, an act usually performed at Arab weddings. On the opposite wall, water is seen dripping on a plate. The two videos are in conversation with one another, and the outcome is unsettling. The artist very beautifully depicts the human urge to savour and deconstruct the past in moments of abrupt change, evoking emotions of fear and anxiety amongst the viewers.

“The artists respond to their experience of accelerated change in their country, in the built environment of their cities and in domestic spaces. Caught between a future driven by globalisation and rapid urban development and a past at risk of erasure, the artists consider their own position and reflect on what is important to them as individuals and as part of a wider collective,” the Mosaic Rooms stated.

Awartani, Al-Ghamdi and Al-Nasser exhibited earlier this year at 21,39, the national art platform in Jeddah, attracting international interest. However, “Shift” is the UK debut for the Saudi artists. “All three have particularly strong individual practices and are at the stage that they warrant this kind of international platform,” said Rachael Jarvis, the show’s curator, to The National.

The Saudi Arabian contemporary art scene that the artists come from is burgeoning, and the exhibition provides a perfect opportunity to get insight into some of its latest and most exciting developments. The show is also a reminder of the importance of art as a space to negotiate issues that preoccupy the contemporary individual and collective in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

The “Shift” exhibition is to take place through September 2 at the Mosaic Rooms in London. The show is part of Shubbak, the London biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture.

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