Saudi Arabia is pursuing a cultural policy in many fields as part of its “Vision 2030“

Panel discussion “Women Behind Art (in the Public Realm)“ on the fringes of the Tuwaiq Sculpture Symposium 2024. Photo: Rhiyadh Art

Modernization not only with spectacular construction projects such as “Neom,“ but also with numerous projects in the arts

The photo above shows one of the discussion rounds on the fringes of the Tuwaiq Sculpture Symposium in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, to which we were invited. The topic and the participants were remarkable: it was about “Women Behind Art (in the Public Realm)“ and the people on the podium were all women.

There was even more that was striking: firstly, the women’s clothing, which ranged from the more traditional to modern outfits.

Participants in the panel discussion “Women Behind Art (in the Public Realm)“ (from left to right): Laura Egerton, Sarah Fahad Alruwayti, Auronda Scalera, Rose Lejeune, Amy Mowafi. Photo: Rhiyadh Art

And, last but not least, outside on the grounds where the sculptor’ works were displayed, there was live jazz music from a band one evening.

In Saudi Arabia, once considered one of the most conservative countries in the Gulf, things have started to change. This is not only evident in the huge investments associated with construction projects like the linear desert city of “Neom.“

There is also a modernization of everyday life in this large and rich country. It bears the title “Vision 2030,“ which was proclaimed by Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in April 2016.

On closer inspection, however, the transformation of the Saudi world must have been planned beforehand. After all, the women on the podium and in positions at important cultural institutions in the city that we met had studied and worked abroad.

This means that their fathers and the state must have sent them abroad back in the 2000s – but back then, the West had not yet heard about the changes that are now evident in the kingdom.

The organizer of the Tuwaiq Symposium, the Rhiyadh Art organization, had organized visits to cultural institutions in the city for guests of the sculpture meeting.

We were invited and experienced the second surprise at the Misk Art Institute after the above-mentioned panel discussion. One of the tasks of this cultural institution is to promote artists from the country. It also documents cultural events in the country.

Exhibition “Echoing the Land“: Abdulhalim Radwi, left: “The Mother“ (1978), 60 x 30 cm; right: “An Arab Girl“ (1975), 64 x 22.2 cm.Exhibition “Echoing the Land“: Abduljabbar Alyaha, “Building“ (1983).

The exhibition “Echoing the Land“ on Saudi painting from 1959 (the year of the first art exhibition there) to 1989 has just taken place there: not only works by female artists were shown, but also paintings depicting women.

Many of the paintings depicted people – which contradicts the ban on images in strict Islam.

Apparently, there has always been a liberal scene in this arch-conservative country, which was tolerated.

We experienced a third surprise when we visited the Feena AlAwwal Center. This is another cultural institution, housed in the former Alawwal Bank building, known as Saudi Hollandi Bank. The architect of the spectacular circular building with echoes of the traditional Najdi style was the Omrania Architecture office, to which Nabil Fanous belonged. He also constructed well-known buildings abroad, such as the Saudi embassy in Berlin.

Figure in the sculpture exhibition in the park of the Feena AlAwwal Center.

The surprise was a small detail in the sculpture exhibition in the center’s park: a small metal figure was sitting on a block of stone – something that would be strictly forbidden in the traditional Koran.

Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in art and culture in order to drive forward modernization. The “Cultural Strategy Saudi Arabia“ has been drawn up for this purpose. In 2020, the royal family launched the Cultural Development Fund as one of the strategies for implementing Vision 2030.

Tourism, for example, is linked to these investments in culture: the Noor Riyadh Exhibition 2023 was once again a huge light spectacle in the capital. It is said to have attracted 2.8 million visitors to the country.

But looking to the past is also part of the Saudis’ cultural strategy – and it also extends to the time before Islam.

In one of the discussion rounds at the Tuwaiq Sculpture Symposium, Manal Ataya, Director General of the Sharja Museums in the United Arab Emirates, and advisor to the Sultan there, outlined what is meant by “preserving cultural heritage”: She does not just want to keep the work of the ancients in museums and archives, she wants to bring it back to life. She cited textile design from South Africa as a model, where old patterns have been further developed for modern clothing.

She also wants to rediscover Islamic design.

Sarah Fahad Alruwayti, Director of the symposium and member of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, outlined the current attitude to life in the country, which is around four times the size of France: “We are living in historic times.“

The book “Art in Saudi Arabia“ describes the current art scene in the country.

Cultural Strategy Saudi Arabia

Misk Art Institute

„Echoing the Land“: Catalog

„Echoing the Land“: Virtual Exhibition

Feena AlAwwal Center

Omrania Architecture

Exhibition “Echoing the Land“: artists often depict the desert. Mohammed Alsaleem: “Untitled“ (1989), 105 x 105 cm.Exhibition “Echoing the Land“: artists frequently depict the desert. Mohammed Alsaleem: “Untitled“ (1977), 80 x 80 cm.

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(11.04.2024, USA: 04.11.2024)