A diverse crew of international and regional museum directors, curators, journalists and collectors descended on Jeddah last month for “21, 39,” a four-day visual arts festival with a continuing exhibition that’s organized yearly by the Saudi Art Council, a nonprofit group formed by art patrons and collectors.
Named for Jeddah’s coordinates of latitude and longitude, the 21, 39 initiative was set up to inform invited art practitioners about the burgeoning Saudi Arabian art scene, and has become an important contribution to an expanding regional arts calendar across the Middle East that includes biennials, art fairs and regular exhibition programming.
The initiative helps to facilitate introductions for museum curators and collectors while simultaneously providing an opportunity for citizens of Jeddah to learn about local artists.
The program for its sixth iteration this year included organized tours of local galleries and artists’ studios, and visits to Jeddah’s historic downtown district, to expose visitors to the many facets of the local art ecosystem.
Historically, Jeddah has long been exposed to outside visitors as pilgrims passed through the port city on their way to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This spirit of Jeddah as a regional crossroads permeated not only much of the week’s programming but also the artworks on display, much of which focused on cultural identity in Saudi Arabia and the shifting socio-political landscape.
Beyond the four days of scheduled events, 21, 39 continues with a central exhibition that runs for two months, allowing students on day-trips and locals alike to visit and engage with the program.
This year’s central exhibition is titled “Al Obour,” which translates as an act of crossing. It can be read as a literal reference to Jeddah’s history as a port and site of movement of people and goods. But the title also carries metaphorical weight, evoking intellectual or metaphysical acts of transcendence.
Curated by Effat Abdullah Fadag, who is the dean of the School of Design and Architecture at Dar Al Hekma University in Jeddah, the exhibition includes nearly 30 works by 26 artists. Most of the works are located in a large warehouse-like space in the Gold Moor Mall, and a few have been placed in Al-Balad, Jeddah’s historic downtown district.
Curatorially, the premise of Al Obour is to illuminate the themes that occupy each artist’s practice. In the foreword to the exhibition’s catalog, Fadag writes that “Al Obour focuses on presenting [the] artists’ experiences of crossing to reach a personal utopia in an effort to find their own individual definition of beauty.”
Reflecting themes in the realms of metaphysics, science, spirituality, society, and culture, the artworks display a sense of deep personal and social self-scrutiny. The artists who produced them represent a range of ages and experience, including established Saudi Arabian artists who have been practicing for several decades along with young, emerging artists.