Sotheby's Experts Review the 2024 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale

Sotheby's Experts Review the 2024 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale

With works by 100 artists spanning the world, from Tomas Saraceno to Dana Awartani, Ahmed Mater to Vikram Divecha, the 2024 Diriyah Art Biennale, curated by Uta Meta Bauer, was always going to be a dramatic and important event. But what did our specialists - Sotheby's team of experts who were on the ground at the event - make of this year's Biennale?
With works by 100 artists spanning the world, from Tomas Saraceno to Dana Awartani, Ahmed Mater to Vikram Divecha, the 2024 Diriyah Art Biennale, curated by Uta Meta Bauer, was always going to be a dramatic and important event. But what did our specialists - Sotheby's team of experts who were on the ground at the event - make of this year's Biennale?

T he 2024 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale, entitled After Rain launched on February 20, to widespread acclaim for its kaleidoscopic artistic vision, topical curatorial themes, dramatic presentation in the JAX District near Riyadh and of course, at its heart, the thoughtful contributions from 100 artists and collectives.

Tackling concepts including climate change, environmental transformation and in a wider context, the rapid evolution of Saudi Arabia the Biennale set a new standard for itself - and for the region's art scene. Here, we ask four Sotheby's specialists who were present at the event as part of Sotheby's supporting partner initiative, to share their reactions to the art on show and the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale itself.

Installation view at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

Tim Murphy, General Manager (MENA)

"It's quite a challenge to single out favourites"

In my 17 years at Sotheby’s, I have been exposed to the most remarkable things, training my eye and refining my sensibilities. During this time, I have had the privilege of representing Sotheby's and overseeing numerous events in the Middle East. My ties to Saudi Arabia trace back to my first journey in 2009, which was followed in 2011 by a travelling exhibition showcasing Middle East Modern and Contemporary art in Jeddah. Since then, I have been a frequent visitor to the region.

Today parts of the country are simply unrecognizable. Not only in terms of architecture, development, and infrastructure, but also in the fervour shared by individuals connected through a multitude of new initiatives, particularly those centred around art, culture, and design. The Diriyah Biennale Foundation has established an extraordinary platform, not only with the contemporary biennial in Riyadh but also with the inaugural Islamic biennale held in Jeddah last year. And I am delighted that Sotheby's has been a committed supporting partner to these events.

The first contemporary biannual in 2021 - 2022 was curated by Philip Tinari, “Feeling the Stones” and took place in the immediate aftermath of Covid. It was one of the first such events I seen in the Middle East that focused on Asian art with numerous local and regional artists. This second edition, curated by Ute Meta Bauer is titled "After the Rain," and offers a wholly distinct experience. I found it to be thoughtful, exciting, engaging and, at times, mesmerising.

This edition showcases 177 works by 100 artists, with a primary focus on fundamental human necessities like water, food, and shelter. It's quite a challenge to single out favourites, but here are two selections:

El Anatsui Logoligi Logarithm (2019)

El Anatsui Logoligi Logarithm detail (2019) (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

Having encountered works by El Anatsui over time, I feel an immediate connection, particularly to those made from discarded bottle tops. The experience of witnessing various iterations of Anatsui's artwork is always invigorating.

In this Biennale, there are two El Anatsui installations. The first greets you upon entering the building, positioned opposite the main entrance. Its texture is a captivating blend of colour and intricate metalwork, forming a distinctive surface with no predetermined agenda for display.

The second installation is even more thrilling. Found in one of the other rooms later on, features a larger golden piece suspended, seemingly floating from the ceiling. This intricate labyrinth is composed of aluminum and copper wire, consisting of 66 parts of free-hanging curtains.

This forms a maze of metalwork that invites interaction as you navigate in and out. While exploring it with some guests, we found ourselves pleasantly lost within its intricate pathways. The title is borrowed from a collection of poetry by El Anatsui’s friend, the Ghanaian poet Atukwei Okai (1941-2018). "Logoligi" translates to 'snake-like' or 'indirect' in the Niger-Congo language of Ga.

Nabila Al Bassam Buildings Of Southern Arabia (1993)

Nabila Al Bassam, Buildings Of Southern Arabia (1993) (Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

There's a captivating narrative surrounding the artist herself, who stands as a true pioneer in her utilisation of paper, textiles, silkscreens, and ceramics. In the late 1970s, Nabila Al Bassam also established one of the first gallery spaces to debut in the eastern province of the Kingdom.

Numerous woven pieces similar to this one have graced Sotheby’s sales in the past. They often depict mountains, palm trees, and the Saudi landscape, drawing inspiration from local traditional Saudi craft, patterns, and styles.
The layers of materials intertwine, creating depictions of countryside, buildings, and landscapes. Having personally travelled across the Kingdom, from Riyadh to Jeddah and Al Ula, I've witnessed firsthand the stunning and varied scenery that makes up the vast beauty of the country.

Yasmeen Gailani (Client Liaison, MENA)

“I left, wanting to return for more!”

After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024, installation view, Azra Akšamija, Abundance & Scarcity (2024). Photo by Marco Cappellletti, Courtesy of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Photo by Marco Cappellettii, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The 2024 Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale truly delivered. I left, wanting to return for more! The range of incredible artists, the exceptional curatorial journey, all encourages you to experience something beyond purely a visual encounter.

For example, each hall in the venue has a specific smell. So, from the moment you step inside, all your senses are involved with the experience. Nature is ever prevalent, with constant yet subtle reminders - be it through the art works themselves or the sensations experienced while journeying through each hall and section, via lighting, smells, colours, and sounds alike.

Safeya Binzagr Turathuna (Our Tradition)

Safeya Binzagr Turathuna (Our Tradition)

One of the works that really spoke to me, was Saudi artist Safeya Binzagr’s Turathuna (Our Tradition), a series of photogravure prints that visually narrate traditional dress from across Saudi Arabia.
I was initially drawn by the clean, yet intricate nature of each piece. I found the series to represent a factual and simple documentation of dress whilst simultaneously remaining extremely generous in both detail and narrative.I was thrilled (and not surprised) to read that the project was preceded by intensive research into the histories of each garment - their colours, embroideries and various textiles that were used in accordance to occasion and geography. I found myself walking away from the series with my curiosity triggered, wanting to delve deeper into the versatile world of Saudi dress and garment history.

Hamra Abbas Mountain 5

Hamra Abbass Mountain 5 (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

I first came to learn of Hamra’s incredible practice in Lahore at an exhibition in Como Museum in 2020. I was immediately a fan. Her striking work Mountain 5 graciously depicts the world’s second highest mountain range K2, located in the artist’s native Pakistan.

On a personal level, I was deeply moved by her use of lapis lazuli through-out the generously sized work. I find a calm reminder of home and roots tucked in the rich blue of lapis. Hamra’s monumental work, despite its use of cool and sturdy materials, left me feeling soft and deeply mesmerised. She has an incredible ability of manipulating tough mediums and translating them into deeply soothing and mesmerising visuals.

Edward Gibbs (Chairman, MENA)

"The monumental scale of the subjects challenge rigid perceptions of the visibility of women"

Exhibition hall B2 addresses the theme of ecology and cultural heritage, with an emphasis on regionality. Christine Fenzl (Germany) presents a series of powerful photographic portraits - 'Women of Riyadh' - commissioned for the Biennale. The bold frontal gaze and monumental scale of the subjects challenge rigid preconceptions of the visibility of women in Saudi society at a time of generational change.

Camille Zakharia Women of Riyadh (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale/Marco Cappelletti)

In the same space, Camille Zakharia (Lebanon) shows poignant photographs of Bahrain, documenting abandoned campsites with rotting tents and chairs inviting the audience to reflect on the transitoriness of human existence.

Alia Farid In Lieu of What Was (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

Exhibition hall B4 (Water and Habitats) is dominated by Alia Farid’s (Kuwait) In Lieu of What Was, an installation of five gargantuan water containers cast in clear lacquered fibreglass which stand iconically like giant canopic jars. The Pharaonic scale of these vessels and their glowing alabaster-like beauty prompts consideration of the politics of water, in a region challenged by conflict and climate change.

Images from left to right: Tomás Saraceno (Portrait Dario J Lagana)̀̀. Shaoji_Liang (Courtesy Liang Shaoji and ShanghART Gallery Shanghai/Beijing/Singapore).

Continuing the theme of ecology are a number of works by artists who incorporate unusual organic elements into their practice. One striking example is two artists who work with insects: Tomás Saraceno (Argentina), who collaborates with spiders, and Liang Shaoji (China), who partners with silkworms and incorporates their threads into his poetic sculptures.

Marta Atienza An Equation of State (2019 - 2024) (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Alessandro Brasile)

I was also struck by Marta Atienza’s installation with mangrove saplings being mechanically raised and lowered into a tank of water commenting on the loss of natural habitat in the neighbourhood of Bantayan island in her native Philippines.

Mai Eldib (Head of Sales and Advisory, MENA)

“It felt like there were so many treasures”

After Rain, Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024, installation view
Dhali Al Mamoon, Kather Nripati (Wooden Lord) (2021), front; Taus Makhacheva, Charivari (2019), back. Photo by Marco Cappellettii, courtesy of Diriyah Biennale Foundation.

The title of the biennale is 'After Rain' and for me, walking through it all, it felt like when you walk in a garden after the rain and there’s a sense of blossoming. It felt like there were so many treasures, so many artists emerging from the landscape. There were some great Saudi Modernists, who are increasingly being included in our sales, like Abdulrahman Suleyman, who was represented here by a series of his early, monochromatic works on paper. And then in the middle of these black and white drawings, then there would be one that was red. It was like a flower that was blooming. The whole biennale felt very lyrical. And then the lighting, the presentation, was truly magical.

Dana Awartani 'Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones'

Dana Awartani 'Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones' (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale/Marco Cappelletti) Marco Cappelletti

Dana Awartani is a Saudi-Palestinian artist who draws on the heritage of Islamic art and languages of abstraction. Her work focuses on the destruction that we see happening to cultural heritage sites, but she has managed, in a very lyrical and poignant way, add this feminine element, where we can mend, and heal.

What I particularly love is that as an artist I have known and seen growing up, she is now part of this year's main Venice pavilion curated by Adriano Pedroso. It is a major achievement for her and something that we should celebrate.

The work on show at the Biennale is from a body of work named, ‘Let Me Mend Your Broken Bones'. The work is composed of naturally dyed, silk fabrics, handmade in Kerala, which have been stretched onto frames and represent maps across the Middle East. Interestingly, she infuses the fabric with herbs and spices, representative of the regions they depict. She’s created tears and rips in the fabric, where culturally significant sites have been destroyed but has then stitched them up. Metaphorically, she has repaired the destruction.

Alia Ahmed 'Alwasm' (2023)

Alia Ahmed 'Alwasm' (2023) (Courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation/Marco Cappelletti)

Alia Ahmed is a new rock star amongst Saudi artists. She’s just shown at White Cube in Paris and I really love her works on paper – they’re authentic and true to her. It’s a lovely work, huge, abstracted landscape of her hometown, Saudi’s capital of Riyadh. There is so much information in these abstract landscapes, they reference not only her cultural heritage, but there are lots of references to abstract artists in her work to spot too.

Modern & Contemporary Middle East

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