RIYADH— Five Saudi artists were recently chosen as winners of the first Misk Art Grant, claiming prizes worth more than $25,000 each. The new grants come as artists are gaining new visibility and recognition in a kingdom experiencing social and cultural changes, and they signal significant new support for the creative arts.
The grants are a project of the Misk Art Institute, which is supported by the foundation of the kingdom’s crown prince, and which plans to award the grants annually.
Works by the artists who received the first grants went on display in early December during Misk Art Week, the institute’s flagship event. The exhibition is called “Mukooth,” meaning to stay, dwell and sojourn—a theme chosen in reference to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which put many artists’ work and careers on hold. (See a related article, “Arab Artists Respond to a World Disrupted by Covid-19.”)
Reem AlSultan, chief executive of the Misk Art Institute, explained: “The Covid-19 pandemic affected art production with the closure of studios due to limited resources and funding; research towards creative projects and the development of new ideas was also disrupted. Very simply, Misk Art Week felt compelled to support and continue the conversation.”
Changing Ideas About Careers in Art
Times are changing for artists in Saudi Arabia, AlSultan said. Misperceptions about the unprofitability of working as an artist in the past led many creative people to shy away from choosing an artistic career, she said. The Misk Art Grant, however, may help change attitudes and potentially foster a new generation of pioneers for the kingdom’s art scene.
The grant provides artists the opportunity to work closely with curators and mentors and offers them technical and financial support. Works by the recipients will become part of the Misk Art Institute collection that will be placed at the institute’s headquarters and may even be exhibited in other parts of the kingdom and abroad.
The winners of the inaugural prizes are Hmoud AlAttawi, Alaa AlGhufaili, Saad AlHowede, Muhannad Shono and Ayman Zedani, chosen from a field of more than 60 applicants.
Ayman Zedani, who says his work is better recognized abroad than at home, welcomes the grant, but says much more needs to be done to support art and artists. His exhibit is a nine-channel video installation with an audio component. Each of the videos are time-lapse views of how materials, organic and inorganic, evolve in their surroundings.
While the grant is not life changing, he says, its timing is crucial as a way to “keep the lights on” for artists. “It came at a time where things were either canceled or postponed or even ghosted in some cases,” he said. People were asking artists to participate in things like talks for free, he said, leaving many artists feeling more like vendors than creative individuals. “There are all of these different entities in terms of institutions and art and culture that are happening, but the artists are being left out.”
The grant is one part of a critical turning point for the cultural scene in Saudi Arabia, Zedani said, ensuring artists are recognized for their role in a cultural revolution that’s an extension of the social changes being seen across the kingdom, including the 2018 decision that allowed women to drive—a freedom that sits uneasily alongside a continuing intolerance of political dissent.
The exhibition also marks what is believed to be the first time a sculpture of the human figure has been displayed in Riyadh.
More Room for Expression
Muhannad Shono, whose Book of Sand sculpture represents the kingdom’s Empty Quarter desert, feels the time has come for artists to come out of the shadows.
“We all grew up in an ‘old Saudi Arabia’ which was more restrictive and there was less room for expression,” he said. Artists did not feel appreciated or validated, “and it pushed everybody away,” physically or mentally. “Even if you couldn’t leave physically you were mentally not willing to engage or give back.” This “disconnect” led to a critical “bleed of talent outside the kingdom,” he added.
Now, things are happening in reverse, Shono believes. With this promise of change, more support, recognition and growth, Saudis are looking to return. “It’s amazing … to see how many people are actually packing up leaving L.A. and leaving Berlin, leaving Sharjah, leaving other parts of the world, and saying, I want to be part of this. … I’ve always wanted this as a dream, because we’ve always dealt with being marginalized. And now, here we are, and we’re in the forefront and it’s exciting, and we’re not going to miss it for anything.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Once deemed anti-Islamic under the strict regime, artists now feel more able to express themselves and find a balance between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds. “I think the two can exist in harmony, and they have to because they’re both quite important to society,” said Shono. “Yes as artists we’re about challenging thoughts, pushing new ways of thinking, and you know, this simple act of just thinking used to be forbidden … but these things are happening naturally.”
Cultural changes such as women sitting freely in cafes and traveling to study abroad are all interwoven with this new artistic freedom, he said. “These are important things and they reflect in the arts. The art world is not this other world that is unaware of what’s happening around it.”
A Welcome Show of Support
Seeing artists supported by such major institutions as the Misk Art Institute will, in turn, help the momentum continue, said Zedani. In the past, families did not see art as a serious career for their children, not least a career with a financial incentive, so many talented artists would find other paths. In 2015, he was accepted to a master’s degree program at the Royal College of Arts in London, but there was no funding to support him, and he was advised to move into a track such as architecture if he wanted sponsorship.
What’s important now is ensuring that the support for the art scene remains focused on quality, said Shono, not simply trying to compensate for a 30-year void. “The spending needs to distinguish between investing money into younger emerging artists and people who are more established,” he said. “It was good that we went through this process of being rejected and unknown and kind of marginalized; that made us tougher, and that’s important. Now everything’s easy and funded and spaces are available, but without having this balance between established and new artists, the scene becomes weak, and that’s the risk.”
Mukooth continues through February 28 at Prince Faisal Bin Fahad Art Hall, in Riyadh. Profiles of the artists, videos and a booklet about the exhibition are available online.