Trappings of Oil

"Oil Candies" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

"Oil Candies" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

Tucked away in Maddox Street, a strangely quiet side road wedged behind London’s busy Regent Street, is the Selma Feriani Gallery; currently home to the first London solo exhibition of Saudi artist Maha Malluh.

Playfully titled Just Des(s)erts, the exhibition showcases Malluh’s newest mixed media installations and a sample of her 2005 photogram series Capturing Light.

Malluh, who was born in the traditional region of Najd, has practised art for over 30 years. She has previously exhibited in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, the United States, and across Europe. She recently displayed her work at Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam at the the British Museum in London.

Malluh’s art comments predominantly on the extraordinary changes that occurred in Saudi Arabia in the years following the discovery of oil, leading to a clash in the region between the consumerism of modernity and the country’s cultural heritage. She focuses on conveying this phenomenon with the use of everyday objects.

"Abwab" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

"Abwab" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

The point of art, says Malluh, is “to make people understand things in a different way. We need art more than ever in Saudi Arabia because life has become more hectic now. People forget about watching the sunset. They don’t look at nature in the way they once did.”

In her previous series, Capturing Light—she was one of the first Arab artist to practice the photogram technique—Malluh chose to photograph objects that were personal to her. She says: “I find my inspiration during the frequent trips to white-walled hospitals with my mother and kids. . .” The aim was to highlight “things in life which are priceless and which give us joy.”

The overriding difference between Capturing Light and her latest selection of works in Just Des(s)erts is that the objects are now physically on display, a way of preserving their former significance, and a resumption of Malluh’s initial application of collage as a means of artistic expression. They are also objects found in the ‘wider Saudi environment’ which allows for a broader reflection on the history and cultural changes in the region.

Collectively, these items tell a poignant story of Saudi Arabia’s physical and societal evolution over the past few decades, and the consequences of rapid modernization that has led to an erosion of the country’s former identity.

"Food for Thought 7000" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

"Food for Thought 7000" by Maha Malluh at the Selma Feriani Gallery

In Food For Thought, Mullah stacks chinco dishes, used in Saudi cooking, to depict the traditional values that form the building blocks of the country’s society, a contrast to the fast-paced and fast-food culture of modern life.

Food for thought 7000 is an instillation made up of discarded objects: cassette tapes of religious sermons in lurid 80’s colors, neatly packed into traditional wooden bread baking trays from the same period. This frenetic conflict of tradition and ‘modernity’ echoes the hostile and fundamental reaction to modernization and Westernization that engulfed the country during this decade.

Abwab is a collection of ornate, rusting metal doors—which originally replaced wooden ones after the first influx of wealth into the country—that are inscribed with longing questions such as Wainkum? (Where are you?) and Wainkum ya rab’umri? (Where are you my lifelong friends?), hinting at a yearning for the traditional that is frequently flushed out in favor of the modern.

Against the far wall of the gallery, squashed oil cannisters—or Oil Candies—that were found discarded and flattened in the desert represent the main instruments of change to Saudi Arabia’s social structure. Now victim to the harsh desert conditions, they are a reminder of the transience of human endeavours and the wealth that comes with them, especially when pitted against nature.

In Just Des(s)erts, we see Saudi Arabia through Malluh's eyes as she takes the viewer on a nostalgic journey through the history of her home country; however, the exhibition is also significant to the struggle of all Saudi Arabians who find themselves caught up in a difficult balancing act between maintaining a simple traditional lifestyle and the trappings of wealth and modernity.

Just Des(s)erts will be on display at the Selma Feriani Gallery in Maddox Street, London, until 11 November.

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