In November 2013, a small handful of art works were sold at the first commercial art auction held in Saudi Arabia. Organised by Ayyam gallery in Jeddah, the sale originally included 38 works by artists from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Palestine. “All the lots got the okay from the Ministry of Culture and Information to come into Saudi Arabia, so they were imported legally,” says Khalid Samawi, one of the founders of Ayyam Gallery.
Despite the initial approval from the Ministry, the Saudi Arabian Society of Culture and Arts (SASCA) later informed Ayyam Gallery that while they could still hold the auction, 23 of the works could not be displayed publically.
On the night of the auction two SASCA members turned up, accompanied by police, and blocked Samawi and the Gallery from auctioning the censored pieces. Of the 38 original lots, only 16 were included in the final auction. “We sold 80 per cent of the lots we were supposed to sell, and all went within the estimates, or higher,” says Samawi. “But when you’re supposed to be auctioning 38 lots and they only allow you to auction 16, figures are not really what’s important.”
Ayyam has galleries in Beirut, Dubai, Damascus, and London. Samawi says the experience with the Jeddah auction was similar to when they first opened in Damascus (the gallery now functions as a studio and haven for artists still in the city). He is also careful to emphasise his belief that the censorship was a problem with some local authorities, and not systemic. “Definitely the royals in Saudi Arabia want to move forward, but they have some fonctionnaire – some bureaucracies – under them that don’t understand.”
“There’s a lot of young talent coming out of Saudi Arabia, and we believe that Saudi Arabia is an important part of the Middle East.”In spite of this disappointing start to art auctions inside the Kingdom, Samawi remains positive about what he sees as a burgeoning local art scene. “There’s a lot of young talent coming out of Saudi Arabia, and we believe that Saudi Arabia is an important part of the Middle East,” he says. “It’s not like Egypt or Lebanon or Damascus, or even Baghdad. But I think that what’s happening in Baghdad, what’s happening in Damascus, what’s happening in Cairo, new locations need to come up, raise the Middle Eastern art scene’s flag while those cities and countries go through their uncertain circumstances.”
Despite a population of more than 29 million, Saudi Arabia has less than 15 functioning, commercial art galleries. Of these, eight opened in the last four years, many of them outside the traditional Saudi art hub of Jeddah. A number of art and design programmes are starting to appear, as are international collaborations. The Kingdom still has no major contemporary art museum, no specialised arts training college, and only two functioning ateliers. In this absence it is the new smaller, private galleries that are stepping up and moving beyond commercial operations, often playing the role of art institute by offering workshops and lectures, and providing a vital workspace for artists.
Michael Jeha is Christie’s managing director and head of sales for the Middle East, and he says that excitement and enthusiasm for art in Saudi Arabia is increasing. “There are more and more galleries opening up, exhibitions, art fairs, art weeks. It’s noticeable and it’s being driven as well largely by the younger crowd.”
Christie’s has been holding auctions in Dubai since 2006, and for the first time this year included an online auction as part of its bi-annual Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian, and Turkish Art sale. More than 2000 lots have gone under the hammer at the auctions. Only a handful of works by Saudi artists have been included since 2006, and they have typically sold for less than $40,000. But the prices seen for recent works by Saudi artist and army officer, Abdulnasser Gharem, mark a dramatic shift in this trend. His “Message/Messenger” – an ornate, golden dome teetering precariously over a suspended dove – sold for $842,000 in 2011, making him the highest-paid living Arab artist. A similar work, “The Capital Dome”, this year sold for $545,000 at Christie’s in Dubai.
While Saudi artists have only recently started featuring prominently in the region’s art auctions, the Kingdom’s history is not completely devoid of art. There are the sculptures of Jeddah’s cornice, which include works by Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Jean Arp. The works were brought to Jeddah during the 1970s and ‘80s while Mohammed Farsi, a leading Saudi art patron and collector, was the city’s mayor. Many of the sculptures are currently undergoing restoration in a project launched by Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) early this year. The community organisation is behind the international Jameel Prize and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in London.
Lina Lazaar, who is Sotheby’s international contemporary art specialist, says that ALJCI has been the patron and supporter behind many recent ventures in Saudi art, including the Edge of Arabia collective and Arabian Wings Gallery. “ALJCI is definitely the soul and spirit behind most of the cultural development taking place in Jeddah.”
Lazaar was born in Riyadh and grew up in Europe before returning to Saudi Arabia with a plan to bring together the various actors in the local scene. “In Saudi, at least, a lot of things are happening, but they’re sometimes very scattered and spontaneous initiatives that may not necessarily be well advertised or packaged to become mainstream.” In February this year she launched Jeddah Art Week, the first such event to be held in the Kingdom. “It was four full days of events and it was totally homemade – engaging with the local galleries, organising an art symposium with Dar-el Hekma, and then all sorts of entertainment for people to actually mingle,” she says.
Lazaar sees JAW running annually, and is currently working on the 2014 event scheduled for February. The Saudi Art Council recently announced a similar event, named 21,39 after Jeddah’s coordinates, that will immediately follow JAW.
Also scheduled for this February is Saudi Design Week, organised by Munira Al-Ajlani, the woman behind Oasis, one of the Kingdom’s first art magazines. While many Saudi artists study overseas, partly because of an absence of local institutions, prominent artists like Abdulnasser Gharem, Ahmed Mater, and Ayman Yusri, are often self-taught. International collaboration is increasing, but it is of a completely different nature to the billions Qatar and the UAE have spent on state-sponsored franchises of the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and other edifices by Jean Nouvel and I.M Pei.
Riyadh’s Naila Gallery only opened its doors in March this year, but has already partnered with Paris’s Institute du Monde Arabe to exhibit a collection or works celebrating the IMA’s 25th anniversary. Ayyam and Athr galleries in Jeddah are seeing increased attention from international art institutions eager to acquire works by the artists they represent. “We are in very close contact with the British Museum, and they have acquired many of our artists. The LACMA in Los Angeles, The Qatar Museum Authority in Doha, Victorian Artwork Museum, France’s Pompidou: there are several institutions that we have very strong ties with,” says Mohamed Hafiz, one of Athr’s founders.
Hafiz, though, is concerned about the possible negative effects of early auctions on a market that he says is still quite young. “For the emerging art scene, if the auction houses don’t play their role carefully, it could easily backfire on the value and the credibility of the artists.” Collectors now have better access to international art markets, increasing the risk of artists being priced outside the market, though this seems unlikely to happen in the kingdom. Ayyam’s auction was pitched at new collectors, with lots priced quite modestly in comparison to the major auction houses.
While there may be little risk of a Saudi art bubble, artist Ahmed Mater believes there is a huge gap in the Saudi scene that must be filled before large-scale local auctions become viable. “Imagine, a growing country, a growing art scene, starting, right away with the auction house? There is no museum, there is no art school, there are no education programmes, there is no institution, there is no organisation, and there are a few galleries.”
Many artists argue that this gap has given Saudi Arabia a unique position in the regional art scene. In the absence of official government institutions and formal education programmes, Saudi art has had to grow organically, informally. “The various scenes in the region each bring different things to the table: Dubai, auctions; Qatar, impressive exhibitions and now auctions; KSA, this grass roots organic movement that’s really now just becoming visible,” says Lazaar. “It is the beginning of a journey, and beginnings are always the most exciting.”
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