Beyond Words: Saudi Artist Muhannad Shono Creates New Language Through His Conceptual Art

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Oct 11 2019 / 10:06 AM

The work of Riyadh-based artist Muhannad Shono is made from an imagined state of being, one devoid of a particular time and place

Beyond Words: Saudi Artist Muhannad Shono Creates New Language Through His Conceptual Art
Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah
Detailed shot of Lisans. 2019. Polymer Clay. 16x5x5cm each

Numerous black squiggly lines of an undefined shape cover the surface of a long piece of white paper. There are smudges made by black charcoal and ink and there seems to be a struggle of some sort between the lines, the smudges and more precisely configured lines almost echo the intricate branches of a tree. The work seems to be the hand of some unknown being or object, maybe a ghost or someone who lost his or her way, stumbled and in the process of recuperating, left a few marks on the ground. This is The First and Last Word by Saudi artist Muhannad Shono (2019) made in charcoal and ink on paper, one of several works on display in The Silence is Still Talking (until 25 September), the artist’s solo show at Athr Gallery in Jeddah.

Through the use of pigment and vibration the exhibition studies what the artist deems “the crisis of the word.” In each work Shono grinds hardened charcoal words to dust and then employs vibrations from inaudible spectrums of sound to result in the new “words”—undefined black pigment forms—on paper. Their meaning cannot be read or heard and must be felt and experienced by gazing at the multitude of smudged chaotic lines.

The Silent Press. 2019. Installation with charcoal on newsprint. Site-specific Installation

Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

Shono’s depictions on paper are the result of the artist’s inquiry into the shifting states of storytelling that occupy contemporary society. He believes that human beings have a tendency to place faith in stories and myths drawing us to the construction of our present, past and future worlds. Such exploration stems from the artist’s “imagined state of being.” It’s a state that is devoid of time and place and that simply exists. In many ways it also frees the artist from his own sense of displacement.

“I was born in Saudi but my parents are originally Syrian and ethnically from southern Russia,” says the artist. Shono grew up when Saudi Arabia was at its most conservative. “This was pre-Internet and back in a time when any kind of artwork or family photos—anything representing the human figure may be confiscated at the airpot,” says Shono. “Because of my identity and awareness that I was an outsider and that I wasn’t original [Saudi] from a young age I felt like I was in the wrong place. I would turn towards my imagination and to fiction in order to process reality.” Still, he wasn’t able to completely rewrite reality. In order to process the world around him he began to write stories and narratives; he created for himself another “imagined” world.

Our Inheritance of Meaning. 2019. Charcoal transfer on tape. 200x100cm

Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

“I felt helpless and so I started creating comic book characters and projecting myself through these characters to process reality through fiction,” he says. “Very early on this relationship with my fictitious characters was challenged by the ideological beliefs in the country at the time.” This was an assault on Shono’s make-believe world. In that world the characters he created were free to travel and live as they wanted to live just as he desired to do. Everything has changed now in Saudi Arabia. “This old Saudi seems so foreign for us,” says Shono. “It’s an extinct narrative, the old ideology. But things have shifted so quickly. It’s important that we don’t get too comfortable.”

All of these changes are themes that Shono addresses through his work. “My work often fluctuates between materials and mediums because of my displaced background and unwillingness to plant any mental or physical roots in any one place,” he says. His mediums include ink, paper, film, sculpture, and the mechanical. Also, most recently, he has worked on collaborative projects with science in the field of microbiology and humanoid robotics. “My work often leans towards narrative, the mythological and doctrine all on the same line and re-mixes them with different kinds of influences to then challenge reality, for example, the mixing of history or the mixing of myth and finding connections and inconsistencies between things is something my mind seems to always be doing.”

Muhannad Shono. Photography by Sueraya Shaheen

Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

Shono studied architecture in Saudi Arabia because it was the closest subject to fine art in the country. He then went on to work in advertising and comic book illustration before dedicating himself fully to his art. “I did comic books and was interested in this self-contained medium of sequential storytelling where you could create a world by yourself,” he says. His first comic book was one of the first graphic novels in Saudi Arabia but it was censored because a lot of the characters in the story performed magic. “I was told that magic was forbidden and so the book was not allowed to be printed,” he says.
In 2007 he moved to Australia where he lived until 2015 after which he moved back to Saudi. “When I came back I noticed the change; Saudi was already a different place,” he says.

“Today, life is drastically different from how I grew up: The dividing lines between the genders are more forgiving and in some circles none existent, a younger generation was now in the driver’s seat, including women. People seem energetic and full of dreams, there is an innocence to things mixed with so much talent now flourishing all around me” These are all changes that Shono continues to explore in his work.

Shono’s artistic language is conceptual in nature and made through various materials, techniques and technologies. Numerous abstract interpretations leave the viewer with questions to answer and messages to unearth relating to religious and cultural myths. “The heavy use of abstraction in Saudi art is interesting because I think it relates to what I went through,” he explains. “If there are no art schools in the traditional sense that allow you to explore the figurative in art and you are not allowed to depict things from life then you develop a strong abstract mind where you are able to think in conceptual ways.” Abstraction thus becomes your new visual language.

A detailed view of The Silent Press. 2019. Installation with charcoal on newsprint. Site-specific Installation

Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

Since returning to Riyadh, Shono has had several solo exhibitions, including Children of Yam in 2016 at Athr Gallery; Ala: Ritual Machine at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 2018 that showed at Ithra in Dammam later that year, and group shows at the British Museum in London, MACBA in Barcelona, HKW Haus der Kulturen der welt in Berlin and at Own the Walls in Toronto, among others. Shono was also selected to partake in residences in Europe, including at Kunstresidenz in Bad Gastein, Austria in 2017 and Artists-in-Labs in Zurich, Switzerland also in 2017. He is currently conducting a year-long art residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.

His work has also been acquired by The British Museum and the Art Jameel Foundation. The centrepiece of The Silence is Still Talking is The Silent Press, a large-scale installation consisting of three conjoined pigment-on-paper scrolls resembling an old printing press. Yet instead of the words that we would expect on each of the scrolls, there are Shono’s undefined forms in ink and charcoal professing a language all their own. The installation constitutes a silent call to free the word from the dominance of text.

Crushed charcoal used for Shono's work

Courtesy of the artist and Athr Gallery, Jeddah

When it is freed from its confines then it can be truly experienced. “It’s also about my relationship with language,” says Shono. “I have a weird relationship with language, in English I’m dyslexic, I cannot spell so I’m self conscious of being asked to write or spell something out in front of anyone, or to have anything I’ve written be read by anyone. While in Arabic my accent fluctuates and betrays my mixed origins, not a thing you want to feel when you are trying to fit in as a kid.”

But the work goes further: It can also be related to a desire for freedom of expression. “This is the concept of the literal word, the unimagined word, the cruel word, the word that is full of hate and restriction—these meanings are embodied in these solid charcoal pigments—also that can be likened to the origin of the universe, they are like little molecules of meaning,” says Shono. “They also tackle this issue of growing up in Saudi because we were not allowed to question certain themes or subjects, so the practice of ‘striving for” new truths or ‘ijtihad’, was fundamentally forbidden, and we were expected to follow the word as it was literally taught to us.” 

The installation also represents the changes in Saudi Arabia today. “It’s about taking all of these doctrines, dogmas and old belief systems and grinding them down to this infinite possibility of pigments, this grounded down dust.” For Shono and curator of the exhibition Rahul Gudipudi, the pigments were not meaningless but rather “limitless in their meaning.” Shono, as he did with the other works on show, agitated the pigments through vibration and it was through this act, he states, that a new potential meaning could be extracted.

“We are going in an exciting direction now in Saudi as the country opens up and diversifies,” he says. The change couldn’t be better professed than through Shono’s massive installation Streams, Dreams and Flow States (2019) exhibited in Naphtha, curated by Moath Alofi, at Khuzam Palace in Jeddah from June to July this year. In it the artist places dozens of old empty PVC piping in a chained off room. They circulate from one end of the room to the next commentating on the Kingdom’s reliance on oil. As the country strives to diversify its economy away from its dependence on oil, Shono’s installation also has another meaning: We can imagine that the pipes now carry within them a new and vital source for the nation. Perhaps it is creativity or perhaps it is simply hope.

From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art