DISPATCH BY: SUZY SIKORSKI
This past summer 2016 I embarked on a journey to discover Saudi Arabia—eager to hear the sounds, see the sights and hear the unrecorded histories coming from the heart of the Islamic world. But instead of buying a one-way ticket to Riyadh, I travelled 13, 000 miles away from Saudi Arabia to the San Francisco Bay Area. My first trip to the West Coast didn’t involve escapes to the wine country, or driving down Route 1 to Los Angeles. Instead I was part of a diverse team exhibiting contemporary art from Saudi Arabia for the first time in San Francisco. GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia narrated 15 different stories from 13 artists and 2 YouTube collectives, whose educations, childhood and practices are far from the homogeneity the American media paints them out to be. My role as the exhibition writer, initially working remotely from Long Island, New York and later moving to San Francisco for the summer involved over three months of skype calls to Riyadh, Jeddah, Milan, Dubai and London and over two years of exploring and documenting local Gulf art production. My endless conversations with artist Abdulnasser Gharem fruitioned into a goal to introduce Gharem, his artist studio and selected other artists to the local Bay community, exposing their personal narratives to a place I was just starting to get adjusted to myself. Between the lines of my text in the exhibition catalogue were so many unrecorded stories, describing these artists’ life changing moments. It was challenging, not only as I navigated my way around a mountainous terrain, during San Francisco’s freezing summer months, but also as I tried to engage with a community while preparing for the artists’ arrival and opening day celebrations.
Interviewing artists Ajlan, Shaweesh and Nugamshi in a New York cafe. Photo taken by Shaweesh
In San Francisco I recalibrated my New Yorker pace to another network running faster and growing within a complex global fabric through technological innovation. I merged two opposite sides of the world—fine tuning the aesthetics, rhythms and soul of Saudi Arabia with the open-minded San Francisco community on discussions on sustainability, and social and spatial developments seen through their respective contemporary art communities. GENERA#ION was composed of 13 artists and 2 YouTube collectives. It comprised of a math teacher, graphic designers, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Army, comedians, and graduate students who served as the first group to represent a part of Saudi Arabia to the San Francisco art community. With over 70% of the Saudi population under age 30, the country is fostering homegrown talent through connecting on the internet, using social media as a way to pivot the Saudi community to become in touch with art criticism, with varying perspectives on what constitutes creativity.
As the exhibition writer, I became these artists’ pen, channeling San Francisco’s innovative energies and thoughts into words, as they embarked on their first visit to the city. In line with pivoting San Francisco on the global stage, as a cohesive art community through sustainable developments, Minnesota Street Project was a perfect space to engage with the San Francisco community. Eagerly waiting the artists’ arrival, I was able to fondly materialize their vision as their artwork shipments began to arrive. Assembling these works, I had the chance to sit face to face with artworks bearing images of Darth Vader, Obama, and Rocky, and while feeling the surfaces of thousands of microphones, brass leaves and polaroids.
Bringing both younger and older voices to the stage, GENERA#ION represented a continuum of visual culture born and reinforced in Saudi. Inspiring the younger generation of artists, Manal Al Dowayan and Abdulnasser Gharem applied different perspectives on history and gender through their installations. Subject to the Saudi religious revivalist movements and wars throughout the region, they proclaimed a message to reorient history by documenting oral and visual culture. Manal Al Dowayan’s Tree of Guardians installation of over 2000 brass leaves created a platform for women to participate and share their family history’s while Abdulnasser Gharem’s rubber stamps and video performances explored how Saudi bureaucracy influences values taught within its education systems and promoted through media outlets.
As distant as Saudi felt, in location from San Francisco, and as writing about a country I have never travelled to before, I still applied Manal’s work within a universal understanding of heritage and family. As our team strung thousands of leaves, preserving over 9 generations of women, I couldn’t help but to recall my own family narratives as told by the many powerful, independent women in my family.
Our opening night on August 13th welcomed college students, young adults and families both Arab and non-Arab within MSP’s spaces—opening three of their galleries to the public centered around a private majlis setting at the same time. Dance and calligraphy performances such as Ahaad Alamoudi’s performance, featured dancers dressed in traditional Khibayti thobes swaying to the beats of Bob Marley’s beats “No woman, no cry” as they glistened against Manal’s brass leaves installation. As I danced alongside this performance, with families and students who were as exhilarated to learn about this foreign culture as I was, I stuffed my face with falafel, sweet dates, baklava and stayed awake by drinking authentic Arabic coffee.
Amongst the many who knew nothing about Saudi culture, there were proud Arabs and non-Arabs alike who reminisced on their stories of traveling to the Middle East, and who were as exhilarated to meet someone who knew the nostalgia felt, longing to return to the fragrant, warm aromas and enchanted melodies of the Arab region. Christine Donley was one of those who longed for Sharjah sunsets in the United Arab Emirates as eager as myself, who frequently travelled to the Gulf region and who chose to take a deeper look into GENERA#ION.
As Christine said: "After viewing modern and contemporary art in cities like Dubai and reading discourse on sites like Ibraaz and Contemporary Practices, I’ve become accustomed to experiencing “Middle Eastern Art” as “Art” and discovering exciting new work and narratives that stay with me long after my initial contact. I wondered if this show would stumble over framing the exhibition as “subversive”, and in doing so, align with “clash of civilization” tropes that so often plague American exhibitions that feature “artists from the Middle East.” Happily, GENERA#ION delivered a riveting and engaging exhibition by staying focused on the artists and their work. While GENERA#ION was aesthetically pleasing and dynamic, it also begged for closer examination. Because many of the pieces communicated in Arabic, I had deep, relational experiences with the pieces that resonated with me, driving me to dig deeper. This dynamic was evident in the work of Nugamshi. His live painting performance was a crowd pleaser on opening night. This was no accident; he told me that he performs this for audiences because seeing the beauty of calligraphic strokes softly draws people in like a bee to a flower, then they are open to hearing the deeper messages within his work like questioning our global dependence on crude oil and the resulting carbon footprint on our planet."
Upon the artists' arrival I had the chance to further immerse myself in Saudi culture. I stayed up till late nights with them, in American style diners, over hamburgers and milkshakes, listening to jazz music and even learning bits of Saudi Arabic dialect. I became closer in understanding and filtering their visions into streamlined thoughts, confirming my own passion and lifelong goal of narrating these artists’ stories.
Following the artists’ departure, I again transformed my role into maintaining that same spark left by the artists, yielding newfound stories that I was able to discuss over tours with SFMOMA and UC Berkeley classes. As GENERA#ION’s door has closed, and the artworks have left, these artists’ footprints remain, and their stories are still remembered within the San Francisco community.
My job has ended, but my recorded stories have remained embedded within my ever-changing perspective of the Middle East region. GENERA#ION’s success not only lies within my own role as narrator of the art, but also draws importance to San Francisco’s acceptance of these outsiders. Carrying that same rebel, open-minded spirit written and spoken by the Beat Generation, modern artists and singers, these Saudi artists have left their mark in synergy with a community that also wishes to destabilize any single way of thinking—politically, socially or spatially.
GENERA#ION created a space that made everyone feel a little bit of Saudi that night, swaying to the beats and watching videos engendering a conversation within a space that acknowledges different routes of attaining similar goals for innovation, participating in a discussion with the global community.
Until we meet again San Francisco!
ARTISTS: Sarah Abu Abdullah, Ahaad Alamoudi, Njoud Alanbari, Rashed Al Shashai, Dhafer Al Shehri, Ahmad Angawi, Dana Awartani, Abdulnasser Gharem, Ajlan Gharem, Masameer, Nugamshi, Shaweesh, Telefaz 11
DATE: 5 September 2016
Suzy Sikorski is currently a US Fulbright Student in Dubai, researching Saudi and Emirati art movements throughout the 20th century. She is continuing to interview these Saudi artists, and hopes to publish further material on the evolution of Saudi and Emirati art collectives.