News & Reports

Art Book Series Explores What It Is to Be an Arab Artist

A double exhibition has opened in Riyadh following the launch by Saudi Arabia’s Misk Art Institute of a bilingual book series celebrating some of the most important and influential contemporary Arab artists.

One half of the show at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall features the painter Abdulrahman Al Soliman who, like other Saudi artists, is currently enjoying a rise in interest in his work. The other half is devoted to the Egyptian sculptor Adam Henein.

The two men are the subjects of the first two volumes in “The Art Library: Discovering Arab Artists,” written in Arabic and English and published in June by Rizzoli Libri, an Italian firm specialized in cultural books from the Middle East.

Both Al Soliman’s abstract paintings with colorful signs and symbols and a previously unpublished selection of Henein’s charcoal drawings draw readers into discovering more about what it is to be an Arab artist.

The series is edited by Mona Khazindar, deputy for cultural assets and centers at the Saudi Ministry of Culture, and a former director general of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

“Books are important because, ultimately, they are what remains,” Khazindar says. “An artist’s work is a form of documentation of our times, which is in turn a historical record.” (See a related article, “What Art Can Teach Us About the Arab World.”)

Highlighting Arab Artists Through Exhibitions

Over the past decade, interest in Saudi Arabian contemporary art has risen by leaps and bounds to compete with Gulf neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates and Oman. (See a related article, “Artists in Saudi Arabia Gain New Recognition and Support.”)

The Riyadh exhibition featuring Al Soliman and Henein is the latest of many shows highlighting Arab artists. It invites readers of the books to immerse themselves in the artwork. There are also panel discussions and workshops for adults and children.

“Riyadh has a thriving arts and culture scene and we are committed to empowering the growth of Saudi Arabia’s creative community.”

Reem AlSultan
Chief executive of the Misk Art Institute

In the modern, industrial space of the exhibition hall, Al Soliman and Henein’s art comes alive against a white background and exposed pipework. Visitors gain a sense of understanding and empathy with the artists as they read about the background of the works they see before them and are able to study them with a critical eye.

“Riyadh has a thriving arts and culture scene and we are committed to empowering the growth of Saudi Arabia’s creative community,” said Reem AlSultan, chief executive of the Misk Art Institute. “The curated set of books is intended to create a curatorial dialogue between the surveyed artists, which is equally felt in the exhibition.”

The Misk Art Institute is a nonprofit institution dedicated to supporting the creative community in Saudi Arabia and the wider region. Khazindar says the idea of the Art Library came to her after seeing publications about regional artists and she wanted to bring Saudi Arabia into focus to create more awareness and encourage more written documentation of artwork and Arab artists.

The Next Generation of Arab Artists

With growth in technology and social media in the Arab world, more young Saudis are discovering local art and some are interested in becoming artists by studying abroad or staying local. The College of Art and Design at the University of Jeddah, for example, aims “to graduate creative artists and professional leaders who are capable of promoting cultural development in the community aligned with the national identity.”

Works by 2 Arab Artists

National identity is close to the heart of all Saudis and it is through literature and art that they are able to express their history. Part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision for 2030 is encouraging a greater awareness of culture and considerable government investment in the arts.  (See a related article, “Crown Prince Pushes Change in Saudi Higher Education.”)

The Covid-19 pandemic also has created opportunities for artists “to develop their careers through residencies, grants and exhibition programs, locally, regionally and internationally,” said AlSultan.

This is clearly visible at the British Museum, where an exhibition running until August 15 showcases contemporary art of the Middle East and North Africa, as part of the Shubbak Festival. Artists include Egypt’s Huda Lutfi, with a comic print of singer Umm Kulthum, and the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, who skillfully incorporates Arabic calligraphy with African motifs in his work. (See a related article, “London’s Shubbak Festival of Arab Culture Returns, Live and Online.”)

Arab Art in the International Arena

But, according to Janet Rady, a specialist in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at Chiswick Auctions, in London, “there is an ignorance of Arab culture in the West.” She welcomed the Art Library as “a great idea, as there aren’t enough publications on arts in the region.”

“International buyers with a connection to the Middle East are usually the ones who buy Saudi and Arab art through galleries and auctions.”

Janet Rady
A specialist in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at Chiswick Auctions, in London

Rady explains that most people tend to appreciate art due to the popularity of the artist, such as Picasso and Monet. As more people become aware of Middle Eastern art through exhibitions such as Al Soliman and Henein’s in Riyadh, the curiosity to delve deeper into the arts in the region becomes greater, and the message is spread about prominent work that can come out of the Middle East.

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

“International buyers with a connection to the Middle East are usually the ones who buy Saudi and Arab art through galleries and auctions,” Rady said. “As a lesson for the future, more grassroots exposure on an international level needs to be made to reach wider audiences, and this takes time.”

The next books in the Art Library series will present the award-winning Saudi artist Lulwah Al Homoud and the Iraqi painter Rafa Nasiri and will be available in the autumn.

The Art Library exhibition runs at the Misk Art Institute in Riyadh through August 28.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button