“We welcome very much the participation of artists from around the world – it renews us and keeps us fresh,” says Cecilia Cavanagh, Director of the Pavilion of Fine Arts at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) where this month three Saudi conceptual artists are exhibiting works at Bienalsur., the Southern Hemisphere’s contemporary art event.
The Saudis, Ayman Zedani, Faisal Samra, and Fatima Al-Banawi, were selected by the curators of Bienalsur. from around 5,100 entries from 82 countries. The selected four hundred artists will exhibit in more than 100 locations in 43 cities around the world during the Biennalsur this year.
If you haven’t heard of Bienalsur. you’re not alone. It’s the world’s first travelling contemporary art biennale, running from June until November 2019. Now in its second edition, the event is trying to do something that hasn’t been done before. The exhibitions staged will travel the world to countries including, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Paraguay, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Uruguay and others that will be announced in the coming months. Exhibitions are free to enter and in the words of Aníbal Jozami, CEO of Bienalsur, “it is about spreading culture in places that traditionally did not receive it and achieving that social sectors that did not have access to culture could enter.”
That the Saudis are here in force in Buenos Aires is yet more evidence of the transformation of arts and culture that is underway in the country.
During the same week as the opening of Bienalsur collectors and art, enthusiasts descended on the port city of Jeddah for a charity auction hosted by Christie’s and Saudi’s new Ministry of Culture. The auction raised over a million dollars for local charities. And it took place in the midst of the Jeddah season, a month-long jamboree of concerts, theatre performances and exhibitions.
Saudi’s arts scene is not new. Saudi artists, performers, comedians and so on have always sought ways to express themselves imaginatively, treading the line between credible expression and acceptability to the authorities. Artists such as Abdulnasser Gharem continue to raise big questions with powerful and challenging, works, such as The Safe 2019, at Gallery Nagel Draxlar, showing at Art Basel this year.
The line between what is acceptable and not is being re-calibrated. The Saudi government is now clearly throwing its support behind artists and artworks that challenge and do provoke thought. A recent show in Riyadh’s Red Palace by Sultan bin Fahad referenced the 1979 siege of Mecca and the Gulf War.
Additionally, it should be noted how the Jeddah auction featured works by Saudi artists as well as those of Arab and Iranian descent. At Bienalsur Fatima Al-Banawi’s work A Blink of an Eye, a 7-minute long video, gives voice to personal stories from women, marginalised for so many years in Saudi. Faisal Samra’s A Grip of Hope invites the viewer to sign a ‘petition of commitment’ to reduce the damage caused by over-consumption in society. And all of this has been supported by the Saudi Ministry of Culture.
“Our participation in this edition of Bienalsur is helping build bridges of understanding between cultures… dialogue is so important. I am delighted that our talented Saudi artists can be part of creating that dialogue” said Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture.
As Saudi changes and opens up, and as the impact of government reforms and plans take shape, Saudi art culture is a reliable bellwether of just how profound those changes are.