Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem sold his first work at auction for $8,700 in Dubai last year. In March at Art Dubai, another of his pieces, made from rubber stamps, was bought by an Emirati collector for $50,000.
“If you compare me with these guys at Art Dubai, most of them are dinosaurs,” Gharem, 35, said in an interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “This means we have something important and different in art.”
Saudi art, still little known outside the desert kingdom, is starting to get international attention after a group of artists exhibited in London in October 2008 and at last year’s Venice Biennale. More shows are planned this year in Berlin and Istanbul. Inside the country, art galleries are rare because of religious objections to depicting the human form in paintings or sculptures.
The government-supported drive to promote Saudi artists on the global stage, part of a strategy by King Abdullah to rebrand his Islamic state as investor-friendly, comes at a time when prices for artworks from the oil-rich Gulf country remain relatively low.
“There is a group of artists in Saudi Arabia, some of whom will probably do quite well in the future,” said William Lawrie, a Dubai-based expert on Middle Eastern art at Christie’s International. The London-based auction house in April 2009 for the first
time offered for international auction a collection of Saudi art in Dubai. It sold six Saudi artworks for about $64,000.
At the Hewar Art Gallery on the 52nd floor of the glass Kingdom Tower skyscraper in Riyadh, general manager Mohammad Al Sa’awy was showing around a potential South Korean buyer.
“Saudi art is still the cheapest in the region,” he said, pointing at an oil painting by Abdullah Hammas, an artist born in 1952, on sale for $5,000. On the opposite wall, works of similar quality by contemporary artists from Lebanon and Syria were priced at $20,000.
That may change as Saudi collectors start to invest in art from their home country, in the same way Iranian-born buyers helped to drive up the prices of art from Iran in the past two decades, said Al Sa’awy. An artist from Iran, Parviz Tanavoli, set a record in April 2008 for Middle East art prices when he sold a sculpture, “The Wall (Oh, Persepolis),” for $2.84 million at auction in Dubai. Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy, has about a fifth of the world’s oil reserves.
Mohammed Said Farsi, a former mayor of the Saudi Red Sea port city of Jeddah who has amassed the largest collection of Egyptian modern art, on Tuesday sold 25 of his several hundred Egyptian art works at Christie’s in Dubai. One of them, “Les Chadoufs” by Mahmoud Said, sold for $2.43 million, setting a record for a work of modern Arab art at auction.
BASMA AL-SULAIMAN, a Middle Eastern collector focused on international art who began acquiring works from India and China in the 1990s, is turning her attention to Saudi Arabia.
Because most artists in Saudi Arabia, which has no fine arts colleges, lack a formal art education, “Saudi art is interesting and fresh,” al-Sulaiman said. “They are experimenting with a lot of different ideas, not only oil painting but photographs and conceptual art.”
Gharem’s works include a performance piece in which he stood for an entire day on a street in his home city of Abha next to a tree wrapped in plastic. He also daubed a section of road leading up to a collapsed bridge repeatedly with the Arabic word “The Path.” Riyadh-based artist Maha Malluh produces black-and-white photographic collages known as “photograms” by exposing to light objects representing Saudi culture juxtaposed with modern items.
The artists are doing things “that are quite personal, related in some way to their own life experiences,” said Lawrie of Christie’s. Gharem, whose “Men at Work” features a soldier, is an officer in the Saudi armed forces and fought against Yemeni insurgents from November to February. Another artist, Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad Aseeri, a doctor at a hospital in Abha, has some works that make use of medical X-rays.
In her studio in a spacious Riyadh villa, Malluh says she sees her role to bridge the divide between Saudi Arabia and the Western world. The artist along with Gharem and others is part of the “Edge of Arabia,” a project mounted by UK art specialist Stephen Stapleton to showcase contemporary Saudi art around the world.
“Most people don’t know what the real Saudi Arabia is,” she said. “The fascination is that they understand what we are saying now, we are talking the same language.”
Hanan Bahamdan is an artist who studied portraiture at the Heatherly
School of Art in London, spending hours a day drawing and painting nude
models. She exhibited at the Hewar last year. Her paintings on display
included a self-portrait in a knee-length red dress and the portrait of
a half-naked woman draped in a bathrobe as well as female sitters
wearing traditional black abayas, a full-length robe that covers all
but the head.
By increasing awareness about Saudi art both abroad and at home, the
aim is to enable artists from Saudi Arabia to achieve recognition and
success, said Sarah Al Faour, chief of arts and culture at the Saudi
Arabian General Investment Authority. It is one of two government
agencies that partner with Edge of Arabia.
“There’s been an artistic boom in the Middle East generally, and there
has been a lot of curiosity, a lot of attention from the international
art market,” she said. “There is a really big creative movement coming
out of Saudi Arabia.”
“Edge of Arabia” runs June 9-July 18 at the Vinyl Factory
Gallery, Torstrasse 1, Berlin, Germany; www.edgeofarabia.com.