For the last 18 months, Saudi Arabia has been the subject of much media interest. The young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (sometimes known as MBS) has instigated sweeping reforms that have occupied headlines. Amid these, and perhaps a barometer of their reach, visual arts in the kingdom have been reframed. Gulf neighbours of the Kingdom have already recognised the potential of incorporating arts into national strategies – making touristic and soft-diplomacy gains through such major undertakings as the feted Louvre Abu Dhabi. A relative late-comer to this burgeoning scene, Prince Mohammed bin Salman is nevertheless making up for lost time, driving key cultural initiatives and incorporating creative enterprises into central reforms for the Kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman was born on August 31, 1985 and ranked amongst the kingdom’s top 10 students. Known as the youngest Defence Minister in the world in 2015, he is also the country’s deputy Prime Minister. As part of his philanthropic work he established the MiSK Foundation in 2011, and two years later introduced Vision 2030 which aims to make the Kingdom the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, an investment powerhouse, and a hub that connects three continents. Buzz concepts such as “active participation in the knowledge economy”, focussing on the key areas of education, creative and digital media, culture and arts, pepper the PR outreach of this vision. In the realm of the arts, ambitious plans are afoot for the King Abdulaziz Center and Museum in Dhahran, and the ‘grand projet’ in partnership with France – a multi-billion euro plan for ‘historic’ collaboration that synergizes culture and tourism by opening the Petra-like, UNESCO World Heritage Al-Ula region and its glorious Nabataean tombs to the world. It is clear that Saudis are keen to assert themselves as key players in the region’s cultural sector.
The Saudi cultural landscape however has some differences from its Gulf counterparts. Where countries like the UAE and Qatar have relatively small, young populations with recent cultural infrastructure, a grassroots artist-led scene has existed in the Kingdom. As formal institutional support is instigated for the first time in Saudi Arabia, its existing creative communities are mobilized. The nascent scene is therefore both established and new.
MiSK Art Institute exemplifies this point. Established in 2017 as an arm of Mohammed bin Salman’s non-profit MiSK Foundation, it is led by the well-known contemporary Saudi artist Ahmed Mater who is working alongside his long-term collaborator Stephen Stapleton. Mater and Stapleton first met in Abha in 2003, going on to found the pioneering Edge of Arabia – an international group that has supported artist production and made significant contributions to international engagement. To understand at first hand the aims of the MiSK Art Institute, we spoke to Ahmed Mater.
Q. Why is the mission of MiSK Art Institute important?
We had been dreaming of an institute for art in Saudi for years – until now there had been nothing official to support artistic production. There were artists self-organizing, working within their own studios, supporting each other; there were a few galleries and some committed patrons; we met curators from abroad who had connected with and recognized the potential…but the audience, consistent and sustainable support , and the acknowledgement that art could ever have a place in any sort of cultural discourse was non-existent. Over the last 15 years, the appetite for and spirit of contemporary art percolated. But it came from the artists themselves, their studios, and independent platforms and spaces. It was exciting to be part of a formative grassroots community, which strived and thrived organically - against the odds in small, limited, domestic and studio-based settings – but there was only so much this could achieve.
Then all of a sudden, it felt like many unimaginable things came together at the same time. The national, social context shifted. No one within or beyond Saudi could fail to notice the unprecedented, rapid changes taking place. The same happened with art: almost overnight, within Saudi there seems to be tacit acknowledgement that art has some relevance, that it can play a part. But this was just one element in the formation of the Institute – while the changing social context is important, so is the longer history of the grassroots artistic movement. If we had one without the other, MiSK Art Institute would not exist. It’s a difficult task, especially at the pace we are working at, but I believe we can, and must, marry the two. The Institute emerged as a number of other ‘official’ structures were announced. That’s both a boon and a risk for an artistic movement that has existed behind closed doors for many years. So it’s not something from nothing, however there is now a framework being offered, and this framework must allow the grassroots spirit to thrive.
My hope for MiSK Art Institute, as its most important mission, is that we can take advantage of this unique opportunity, and through meaningful support, Saudi creativity and artistic grassroots can be part of change. It’s important to recognize that artists and institutions need each other in equal measure. The conundrum of keeping art potent and honest, while improving official support is certainly not unique to Saudi Arabia.
I often use the example of Al-Miftaha Arts Village in Abha where I first practiced art. It was a fertile artist community with little official expectation or support, yet the place simply would not have existed without patronage. Art history is written through such examples: the continuum of the artist, the patron, the institute, the art school and the great movements – it’s a well-trodden path. Our circumstances are unique, but the belief is the same: these two forces of artist and patronage can come together and meaningful art can thrive. In establishing an artist-led Institute at this time, I hope that some of the infrastructures for cultural and social transformation can be influenced by the artist’s way of thinking, and this is incredibly exciting.
Q. In what ways do you anticipate it to lead cultural development in the Arab world?
I don’t think we can aim explicitly to ‘lead’ – we are only a year old and Arab cultural infrastructure is much bigger than us. What we can anticipate are fruitful partnerships and collaborations. We have a lot to learn, but also a lot to contribute. That spirit of trying, moving with a fast pace of change, keeping the grassroots spirit of experimentation alive is something we can bring to the cultural development of the Arab world. Geopolitically and historically, Saudi Arabia undoubtedly plays a significant role in the region and internationally – art is an important complement to hard and fast politics and to social change. It is a means to process, to document, to understand – we have to do that with other institutions and artists in the region and beyond. We are young and new, emerging from a totally unprecedented moment of change, and I think we can bring to the mix a new imagining of what an art institution can be in the 21st century. Let’s see it as a continuum: we learn from the more established, and they see from us what can be done today. Together we have agility and longevity – it’s exciting to watch what those two qualities can do.
Q – What are some of your next projects?
We have covered a lot of ground in our short life. We have presented exhibitions and educational initiatives internationally, in the region, and in Saudi Arabia. These have included the region’s first Art Book Fairs in Jeddah and Dubai, exhibitions in Dubai, Paris, Washington DC, NY and LA, and seven publications. We are shortly presenting the first National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the International Architecture Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The Institute has also announced the architects for its new Center which will open in Riyadh in 2020 – this will be a major artists’ resource with studios and exhibition spaces – nothing like this exists anywhere else in the region, and I hope that, in terms of production, it will allow artists from all over the Arab world to create work that previously would not have been possible, or which they would have had to go to Europe or elsewhere to create. It will be designed around community, architecturally open and collaborative. What is happening in the lead up to that is about audience engagement, and generating new awareness of the importance of artists.
The fall will see two major festival style events – in October and November we will be initiating two city-wide festivals in NY and Riyadh. In NY we have already established a number of wonderful partnerships and are committed to working in all five boroughs with a focus on connecting cultural practitioners and story lines from the Arab world with students and teachers in NY. Our first year will culminate in November, with MiSK Art Week in Riyadh – the seven-venue, seven-day happening will celebrate seven contemporary art forms, giving local practitioners new platforms to experiment with their work. Nothing like this has ever taken place in Saudi before and our hope is that it is a platform for all. What’s really important for us is to strike a balance – between past, present and future; between Saudi, the region and the world; between exhibitions and longer-term initiatives and so on. It’s about the eco-system and balance – we can’t do one part without the other. Each initiative has multiple strands, with a view to ‘what’s next’. The NY event for example, will engage international audiences with what is going to follow in Riyadh, and hopefully bring many first-time visitors to Saudi. This will expose the local artists to international curators and art lovers.
The excitement of the first year is huge and very important, but it must give way – after the novelty and excitement – to longer-term, sustainable programming. This is why publications and partnerships are important: why for example one of the events of the NY festival is tied to the collection of Saudi artists’ works; why education is essential and why we are gearing up for the opening of the Center in 2020. But without documentation, educational initiatives and long-term thinking, sustainability would be at risk, and we are fully committed to sustainability.
Q - Which is more important: arts development inside the Kingdom, or exporting Saudi culture?
As I mentioned, it’s all about balance and symbiosis. The internal and the external are complementary. The MiSK Art Institute has a local (focussed on Saudi Arabia) and a regional (focussed on the Gulf and Arab world), as well as an International Programme. Each focus has different priorities and is made up of different partnerships and programmes according to context. Locally, there will be a big investment in education and career development for young artists, designers, architects and film-makers. In the region, we are working with partners to establish a better art historical foundation with our work, and documentation which recognizes our shared histories and which preserves that against tides of prejudice or even the threat of relentless global homogenization. Internationally, we are actively trying to challenge prevailing assumptions about our part of the world while also building sustainable partnerships which promote knowledge and ideas across the borders that divide us. Artists are aware of the opportunities that international exposure affords – we can help to offer some of these connections. We are also passionate about cultural exchange and inviting the international cultural community to visit and make their own connections with Saudi Arabia. It’s a privilege to be involved in hosting, and MiSk Art Week is going to be a great moment for this, and for bringing together all the local, regional and international aims together.
Q – What aspects of Saudi culture are underrepresented or misrepresented?
Art is a mirror to understand ourselves, and also a window through which outsiders can have a clearer view into our world. Saudi culture and society is in flux – during such change, it’s even more important to find a way to process, assess and document. There are myriad reasons why artists have been underrepresented and ostracized in Saudi for the last generation – but they were always there, working. Now there is not only a chance for visibility, but to be a significant part of a much-needed social shift. With more support, infrastructure and opportunities, artists can channel the energy of this moment into something more. In the past, our culture has too often been romanticized or vilified, and I believe in the artist’s role to widen that representation to accommodate other stories, other realities.