Saudi Arabia Celebrates The Art Of Play At Ithra’s Tanween Festival

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Oct 29 2019 / 11:59 AM

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture’s annual Creativity Season returned for a second edition this year highlighting the integral aspect of “play” in the creativity

Saudi Arabia Celebrates The Art Of Play At Ithra’s Tanween Festival
Courtesy of Ithra
An exterior view of Ithra, King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

On the ground floor of Ithra’s monumental anamorphous structure is an enormous transparent, helium-filled, membrane-like ball spiked with charcoal. A group of families with their children watch as it moves across the four walls of its temporary four-walled pop-up space leaving a variety of markings on the floor and walls. Called Ada and created by Karina Smigla-Bobinski, the ball is pushed, dragged, and constantly played with to the delight of its participants. Is Ada an artwork? Yes and no.

According to its maker, Ada is a post-industrial, animated and interactive creature that makes art according to how it is played with. Smigla-Bobinski’s Ada was one of the highlights of Ithra’s second annual Tanween festival, a 17-day Creative Season celebrating the art of play through inspirational talks, exhibitions, and workshops bridging the realms of science, art, manufacturing, performance and communication.  Last year, Ithra's Creative Season was dedicated to Zaza, which means “disruption” in Arabic.

Ada by Karina Smigla-Bobinski

“We have two missions: one is to develop the creative industries in the Kingdom and one is to develop innovative thinking across sectors,” says Robert Frith, the creative director of Ithra’s Idea Lab and curator for this year’s Tanween.

“We focused on four different areas: play process, play products, play spaces and emergent play," adds Frith. "We wanted to explore the power of play and creativity in different ways – whether it’s through your education and learning, musical instruments, materials, toys, games or the spaces you play in – the cities, offices, buildings and your homes and how you make them playful. Emergent play is about how you use technology in your play and what is coming in the future with references to AI.”

Tanween Talks - Play Process

Stationed just outside of Ithra was a series of large, interconnected inflatable architecture structures entitled the “Luminarium” by Alan Parkinson. Founder of Architects of Air, “Luminarium” is composed of a series of temporary inflatable spaces merging the beauty of light, geometry and architecture. Visitors walk through the maze of variously sized rooms in awe, pausing to admire the luminous colours and light emanating from within each part as well as the many references to gothic and Islamic architecture. 

An exterior view of Luminarium by Alan Parkinson

Another highlight was Dining in the Dark, a creation of Dialogue Social Enterprise GmbH, in which epicureans are provided with the opportunity to challenge their senses and their pallets by experiencing a multi-course meal over close to four hours in pitch darkness led by blind and partially-blind hosts. The concept, as this reporter experienced, explored new ways of experiencing space and communicating with others without sight.

Also of note was Data Strings by Creative Dialogue, a continuously changing art installation evolving through the answers of its participants and the threads that they mark on a large board leading them from one answer to the next as they respond to questions such as: “I trust when I am..” “I fear when I am..” “I pick…”

Data Springs by Creative Dialogue

Smigla-Bobinski’s "Kaleidoscope" was another hit. The large surface of floating layers in inks of cyan, magenta and yellow respond to pressure, whether it be via the placement of one finger, a whole hand or a body. Children and adults alike could be seen immersed in the experiential and interactive nature of the work.

“Our audiences are diverse,” says Frith. “While we cater to the families with children, our core audience is the 16 years plus group, the young professionals and creatives - who are all vital to our future. Tanween is a way to provide these people with the tools to be part of the growing creative economy in Saudi Arabia.”

Kaleidoscope by Karina Smigla-Bobinski

Technological and futuristic references could be found throughout the festival, particularly in Microworld by Genetic Moo and Lumen Art Projects, a dynamic realm filled with artificial creatures inspired by nature that the participants themselves could design and then watch as they evolved and travelled through space.

A pivotal workshop nodding to Saudi Arabia’s desire to wean itself off its dependence on oil and towards the establishment of a creative and diverse economy was Bio Lab by Netherlands-based Company New Heroes. In it Saudi scientists and designers experimented with bio-based materials from Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands in an effort to devise spaces and contraptions for new biotechnology in both countries.

Modern Cloth Workshop. One of the many workshops that took place during Ithra's Tanween Festival 2019

Tanween offered a place to play, learn and dream. “Play takes you into a safe space where you can explore ideas,” adds Frith.

As psychologist Abraham Maslow says, “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play." Tanween supports this claim. To round it off a series of talks and performances, including by the likes of renowned Saudi Arabian female photography Tasneem Al-Sultan and Lebanese-American musician Tarek Yamani, further demonstrated the need for play within our daily lives.