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Arabia and Utah
by Muhammad Yusuf August 24, 2017
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An upcoming exhibition of Saudi contemporary art in Salt Lake City, Utah, opens at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) on Aug. 25. Titled ‘Cities of Conviction’, it will run through Jan. 6, 2018.

“‘Cities of Conviction’ will examine the parallels between spiritual and urban cultures in Saudi Arabia and Utah; and especially the symbolism of creativity that connects cities of pilgrimage in both places,” says exhibition curator, Jared Steffensen.

“Since the 7th century, the holy cities of Makkah and Medina have drawn millions of Muslim pilgrims every year to worship at the holiest sites in Islam, the Kaaba (House of God) in Makkah and the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina.

“Salt Lake City was established nearly a thousand years later by Mormon pioneers in search of a safe haven for their newly established religion. Members of the Church of Latter Day Saints also make a twice-annual pilgrimage of the faithful to the General Conference at the spiritual centre of the Mormon faith, Temple Square”.

The common histories of these cities, he continues, extend well beyond issues of faith. Cities across both Utah and Saudi Arabia arose from the desert; have laws driven, in large part, by the predominant religion, and at first blush have comparatively conservative cultures.

Also, they have a youth culture pushing the boundaries of their society through relentless individual expression while maintaining a sense of community. These cities’ growth is limited and defined by their natural boundaries, valley walls, uninhabitable terrain and mountains; and both possess economies driven by access to natural resources.

The discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia propelled its expansion, at times erasing architecture and history in favour of a more cosmopolitan feel, as evidenced by the commercial development projects being constructed around the sites of pilgrimage.

This phenomenon is mirrored in the recent debates over land use and energy resources across the state of Utah, from Bears Ears National Monument to the development of City Creek Center and the high-rise condominiums that literally look down onto Temple Square.

‘Cities of Conviction’ presents works from artists who are engaged in looking at these struggles transforming their society, delving into complex issues that link Utah and Saudi Arabia, such as oil, pilgrimage and the tension surrounding commercial development around important cultural and religious heritage sites. From sacred lands to the way society condemns or accepts religious practices, each unique culture connects to one another in a variety of ways, feel the participants.

“Contemporary art has always been at the heart of these human connections, bringing to the forefront the most pressing issues of our national and global cultures,” says UMOCA Executive Director, Kristian Anderson.

The Saudi artists, as do many Utahans, question the long-term stability of relying on non-renewable resources to fund transformation. As Saudis inch towards a more globally-influenced culture, Salt Lake’s Latter Day Saint communities are moving towards accepting a more globally-influenced Salt Lake City, as the influx of new residents from all over the world changes the cultural landscape of Utah.

Abdullah Al-Othman, in the ‘Cities of Conviction’ exhibition, covers an entire building with tin foil in a symbolic gesture to its frozen state in his work ‘Suspended’. He seeks to make a statement about the absurdity of thinking that the cycle of change could ever be stopped.

Balqis AlRashed, currently the first international artist in residence at UMOCA, has been featured in various media platforms and has been selected as Nike ambassador.

Khalid Zahid in ‘Beginning/End’, literally takes apart a gas tank, the universally recognisable device from which the public purchases oil. The meter remains intact and running – a powerful reminder of the urgency to develop new sources of energy.

Musaed Al Hulis presents ‘Dynamic’, a prayer run made of steel alloys. Constructed from bicycle chains, the work implies the dynamism and spiritual power the artist feels during prayer.

Qamar Abdulmalik in ‘Asylum of Dreams’ has created an interactive crane machine game, ubiquitous in arcades, filled with passports of various countries, including the USA, Canada and the UK.

Viewers are encouraged to insert coins and attempt to grab one of the many passports available to win. The installation reflects the experience and limitations of being a refugee, an individual who has lost his or her state-established identity.

Rashed Al Shashai in ‘Delicious’ rolls up carpets – powerful symbols in the Middle East – and slices them into smaller pieces. Reminiscent of Swiss rolls, the work calls out to undermine the commercial consumption of culture.

Telfaz11, one of the participants at UMOCA, is an online entertainment content distribution platform that has attracted and fostered significant Arab “internet talent”. Produced by Saudis studying abroad as well as by Saudis who have been educated in Saudi Arabia, it presents shows that address both Arab and American stereotypes that pervade the mass media in both countries.

Yusef Alahmad’s vibrant skateboard decks unite unlikely elements of counterculture with the centuries old tradition of Islamic design. In his skateboards, seemingly opposing cultures are purposefully combined to reflect that contradictions are a fact of life.

Artists for Utah

Abdullah Al-Othman, Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater, Arwa Alneami, Balqis AlRashed, Nugamshi, Dana Awartani, Ghada Al Rabea, Khalid Bin Afif, Khalid Zahid, Lina Gazzaz, Moath Alofi, Musaed Al Hulis, Nasser Al Salem, Nouf Alhimiary, Qamar Abdulmalik, Rashed Al Shashai, Telfaz11, Yusef Alahmad.
Alahmad creates topically modern amalgams of the old and the new that explore the role of tradition in the present day and highlight the beauty of coexistence.

Much like Alahmad’s work, the reality of Salt Lake City is one of a multiplicity of contradictions existing in unison. Although Utah may be known for being the headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints making Mormonism the dominant culture, it is noted as having a well-established countercultural presence buoyed by radio stations, magazines, record stores and bars, as well as by a prominent skateboarding scene. Although seemingly in contrast, these cultures coexist in centres like Salt Lake City.

In ‘I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming’ (video), Dana Awartani creates a site specific installation in an old abandoned home, located in the old part of Jeddah, where her grandparents’ generation used to live.

She started by covering the floor with patterns using coloured sand that are reminiscent of traditional Islamic tile work, that were once common in most Arab and Islamic homes. Once she completed the full installation, she created a video piece that shows her destroying the art work by sweeping up the sand tiles as a symbolic commentary on the modern day destruction of cultural identity and heritage.

The home she has chosen to create the piece plays a crucial role in the art work, as the building was a typical home amongst the wealthy elite during the late 50s and early 60s.

It was during this time that homes in Jeddah broke from traditional Hejazi architecture and adopted a more European aesthetic to project a sense of a more “civilised” and “forward” society, in turn completely abandoning their own cultural identity.   

‘Cities of Conviction’ is organised by UMOCA in collaboration with King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, and is coordinated by CULTURUNNERS, an arts organisation which supports artists’ journeys and production across physical and ideological borders. UMOCA is Utah’s only contemporary art museum.

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