Political Debate Under the Umbrella of Art

Peter Aspden reports for the Financial Times on how Art Dubai managed to create a space for contemporary artists from the Gulf to daringly express themselves:

Inside the fair, some of the art at least is doing its best to live up to its role as social commentator. There may be no nudity or pornography around (Basar condemns the “absurd focus” on these as totems for freedom of expression), but Dubai has become an important focus for artists from the wider region whose work is making trenchant points not always appreciated in its host country.

The Saudi-based Athr Gallery is showing the work of Ahmed Mater, supersized aerial photographs of the fast-developing area around Mecca and a critique, Mater says, of overzealous planning. The pictures, all cranes and busyness, give little sense of the place’s spiritual significance. The artist points to the Grand Mosque in the centre of the picture. “This is the only thing I respect,” he says. “Not all this,” waving at the cranes. Ideally, Mater wants to show the photographs in Mecca itself. But to show them in Dubai is “testing the waters. I want to hear what thinkers, what intellectuals, think [about the issues].”

The gallery’s founder, Hamza Serafi, is more equivocal about the themes raised by Mater’s photographs. “Artists always have strong statements to make,” he says. “Some people see this as a disturbing image. But these changes are also allowing an extra 1m people to come [to Mecca].” Serafi says the art he likes to display is that which opens up issues for discussion.

The piece feature other Saudi artists like Manal al-Dowayan and Eyad Maghazil. The budding contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia is one of the most exciting changes that happened in the country over the past few years.