Against corruption and for culture

“Documenting the Undocumented” by Huda Beydoun, 2013.

Misk Art Institute is organizing an October Arab art festival in New York and sending Saudi artists to study in California

By Rasheed Abualsamh

The sweep against corruption in Saudi Arabia began to wind down on Jan. 27, 2018, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman, was released from his luxury jail at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh.

Hours earlier, an interview that he gave to the Reuters news agency was posted on the internet. In the video, the prince – whose personal wealth is estimated at US$17 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world — categorically denied that he is corrupt and said he had insisted on spending more time in the hotel to get rid of all suspicions. It seemed strange how he showed the little kitchen where they brought vegan dishes for his meals, since he owns a palace in Riyadh with more than 400 rooms. Alwaleed said he will return to running Kingdom Holding, which includes several cable TV networks, a record label, a stake in Banque Saudi Fransi and large stakes in Citibank, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft, among others.

News of Alwaleed’s release made the value of Kingdom Holding shares rise 10% in one day, after having fallen more than 20% when he was arrested in November.

Bakr bin Laden, the former head of the Saudi Binladin Group, was also freed last week. But the government now controls the construction company, although the Bin Laden family holds several seats on the executive board. The contractor faced difficult times in recent years, despite being hired for decades for the expansion of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. But a lamentable accident occurred in the Great Mosque of Mecca in 2015, when a crane fell during a violent gale and killed 107 people. It seems that this sealed the fate of the company, which never recovered from the accident.

In any case, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, announced on Jan. 30, 2018, the end of investigations into the 325 people who had been detained at the Ritz-Carlton. He also announced that the government had recovered US$107 billion in deals made with the detained princes and businessmen. About 60 prisoners remain, who have refused to make a deal or admit to having made money illegally. They were transferred to Al-Hair prison, south of the Saudi capital, and will face legal proceedings.

As far as the eye can see, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has the support of the Saudi population for this anti-corruption campaign and for his liberalizing steps. Under his influence, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has allowed Saudi women to drive automobiles from June of this year. Until 2017, the conservative kingdom was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. King Salman also ordered the reopening of cinemas, after a break of more than 30 years, and allowed the entrance of women in sports stadiums to attend football matches.

But it is in the area of ​​culture that MBS is going further. He authorized the formation of the Misk Art Institute and appointed the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to direct the institution. The Crown Prince already chairs the Misk Foundation, with educational, social, and cultural programs aimed at Saudi youth.

The institution has several Saudi artists on display at a museum in Brooklyn, New York, and is choosing the design for the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The institute will also organize an Arab art festival in New York in October, and send Saudi artists to study in California. More than 60% of management positions in the entity are held by women.

Saudi directors were very excited about the news that cinemas were going to open again in the country. Until now, they could only display their works abroad or on the internet. Now, with these cultural reforms, they will be able to show their films in local cinemas or on Saudi TV.

Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah, who filmed “Mariam” in France in 2015 — about the struggle of a young Muslim woman on whether to use the hijab (Islamic veil) in her public school — told me that she recently showed her film to a mixed group of young Saudis at a café in Jeddah, and then participated in a conversation with the public about the topics touched on in her film.

“The audience’s reaction was very surprising to me,” she said. “First, they understood the movie on several levels. They really were movie fans. Half the audience was female, and two girls talked about relationships that did not work out over the issue of whether or not to use the hijab,” said the director.

According to Faiza, the next exhibition of a movie in that café is already scheduled, and will be a film of another Saudi director, Shahad Ameen.

Faiza told me that she has already received invitations to show short films on Saudi TV, and that the Misk Foundation is granting funding to filmmakers in the kingdom. “The King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is also supporting Saudi filmmakers. They called me a year ago and asked me to share new projects with them, and they wanted to support me. And a university professor who was in the audience offered to provide me her students to be interns on any project that I would execute.”

Only five years ago, this level of official support for Saudi artists and filmmakers did not exist. Film funding always came from the private sector, and even so, several Saudi filmmakers had to seek foreign funding to make their films. But now, it seems the Saudi government has realized the soft power that culture has. It remains to be seen how much freedom Saudi artists will have.

–This article appeared originally in Portuguese in O Globo newspaper.

Four shows: One night

Yana Tamayo poses in front of one of her series of watercolors that
explore the geometry of various public buildings in Brasilia.

LAST week I attended four art exhibitions in one night in Brasilia. I had originally intended to just see Yana Tamayo’s solo show, but when I arrived at the Galeria CAL of the Casa da Cultura da America Latina in the Setor Commercial Sul, friends I met there told me there was another show upstairs and more at the Caixa Economica.

Tamayo’s show reminded me of senior art shows one sees in universities. She is still young, only 31, and the show was co-sponsored by the University of Brasilia, so that may account for the sense of a talent still not fully developed that I felt she was.

Entitled Projeto Desvio de Serie (para olhar a cidade), Tamayo told me that her aim here was to look at Brasilia’s architecture and public spaces with new eyes, and show that in her art work. One of my favorites was her video installation that showed a speeded up 19-minute long video of a green public space with a road in the background on which cars drove by. The movement of the cars and the moving shadow cast by overhead clouds looked cool to me, reminding me of TV police series in which detectives watch video surveillance tapes to catch a criminal.

She also did a series of small watercolors in which she reduced popular buildings, such as the Conjunto Nacional shopping center and the Olho do Tatu underpass at the Central Bus Station, to blocks of geometric color. Her Y-shaped water towers of Ceilandia reminded me of the water towers of Riyadh and Kuwait.

Her show is open until July 19 in the Quadra 4, Edificio Anapolis.

The second show that I saw that night upstairs from Tamayo’s was by a much older artist, Marlene Godoy. Her work is abstract and consists of huge panels of all types of melted waxes that she layers into different designs. I didn’t really like her work: For me it looked like institutional art that would look best in a corporate boardroom or the lobby of a five-star hotel.

Moving on to the Caixa Cutural, which is the large exhibition space next to the headquarters of the Caixa Economica bank at the end of L-2 Sul in the Setor Bancario, I saw two exhibitions: One of the drawings of the great Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the other of the Austrian pop artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

I enjoyed Le Corbusier’s architectural drawings immensely, especially those of the public buildings he designed and had built in Chandigarh, India, in the early 1950s. From his masterful use of raw, unfinished concrete, that he used in so many of his buildings, it is easy to see how he was such a great influence on the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and urban planner Lucio Costa when they were designing and building Brasilia in the late 1950s.

Hundertwasser’s exhibition showcased his posters that he had painted to celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I must admit that I enjoyed the poetry written by the Brazilian Thiago Mello to accompany the artwork, more than the art itself!

Both the Le Corbusier and Hundertwasser shows are on display until July 19.

Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh Secretariat building: A veritable ode to concrete:

Young artists in Brasilia

One of Yana Tamayo’s photographs of the National Museum
in Brasilia surrounded by ‘possible’ other buildings.

ON Tuesday night I went to the opening of an exhibition in Brasilia of young Brazilian artists. Held at the ECCO gallery, which is in front of the Liberty Mall and sandwiched between two car showrooms, the group of people gathered outside the gallery’s entrance made us think there was a line to get in. Fortunately, it was only people watching a man covered completely in yellow and black striped plastic strips posing in front of the venue and occasionally moving. This was supposed to be performance art, but I’ve seen better before. The people watching though were appreciative, clicking away with their digital cameras and cell phones.

The reason for the gallery being between two car showrooms became apparent when my friend Ricky explained to me that it was owned by Karla Osorio Netto, who comes from a wealthy family that also owns the car dealerships. “Oh, now I understand,” I said.
The gallery space is quite large, around twice the size of similar privately-owned galleries I have seen in Dubai. Divided into two floors, the ground floor was showing the work of two artists, Carolina Ponte and Pedro Varela, called Pontos de Encontro (Points of Encounter). Varela did pen and ink drawings of mystical villages that looked vaguely Russian. I found them a bit too illustration-like and juvenile, but Ricky said that’s why he liked them. Ponte does huge, colorful drawings of cities that span whole walls, and looked to me like something trendy and hip parents might have commissioned for the walls of their darling children.
Upstairs the exhibition entitled Um Lugar a Partir Daqui (A place starting from here) was much more experimental and interesting. Sponsored by Itau Bank, which claims to be the largest bank in Latin America, it included mainly installations and photographs. My favorites were Barbara Wagner’s color portraits of men taking part in a street festival; Vitor Cesar’s series of seven photographs showing a man standing behind various different shop awnings, his head cut-off, and the Brasilia-born Yana Tamayo’s series of photographs questioning the iconic Brasilia architecture of Oscar Niemeyer.
Tamayo took plastic bowls and placed them on the ground in front of the Niemeyer-designed National Museum building in Brasilia, that looks like a giant, white flying saucer, and then photographed them from various angles. Ricky and I were able to track Tamayo down at the opening and she told us that she was trying to question the use of public space in Brasilia by producing the series of photographs in which she introduced new objects into the iconic skyline of Brazil’s capital that will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next April.
Tamayo will be exhibiting other photographs at another exhibition scheduled to open June 23. She has promised me an invitation, so I will write about it when I go and see it.
— The Pontos de Encontro exhibition will be open until August 2, while the Um Lugar a Partir Daqui show will only be up until July 19. Call the ECCO gallery for more information, 61-3327-2027, or visit their website

Painting mugs in Dubai; B21 Gallery

I SPENT Monday in Dubai with my colleagues Kelly, Rasha and Rym, first at the Mall of the Emirates and then at the B21 Gallery in the industrial area of Al Quoz where we attended the preview show of Palestinian artist Jeffar Khaldi.

At the mall, Rasha and I spent an hour and a half at the Cafe Ceramique painting ceramics. The cafe has a selection of ceramic objects that one can choose from and then paint. The shop then fires them in a kiln that they have in the back, and after a week they can be picked up.

I chose a big mug and painted it in multi-colored stripes. Rasha chose a large goblet and painted it in a style that I could only describe as “vaginal” because of the various shades of pink that she used to paint with.

The ceramic pieces are not cheap. My mug was priced at Dh72 ($20) and Rasha’s goblet was Dh71. Despite the prices, we enjoyed being creative for a change and found it really fun and relaxing.

Kelly then joined us and we drove to the Al Quoz area for the Khaldi exhibition. The B21 Gallery is surprisingly small, but an arts writer told me that it was considered rather a good space for Dubai.

The paintings were disturbing, with many references to the violence wrecked on the Palestinians by the Israeli occupation.

Iranian artist Ramin Haerizadeh

ONE of the artists that impressed me the most at Art Dubai last week was the Iranian artist Ramin Haerizadeh who specializes in doing photomontages.

His series entitled “Bab Hijab”, which shows women who are wearing their hijab in a “bad” way on the streets of Tehran being harassed and arrested by the religious police, of course reminded me of our own religious police in Saudi Arabia.

He superimposes his own face on that of the women in the pictures, I guess to protect their identities, and then colors the prints he makes of the photos.

Ramin was born in Tehran in 1975 and has been exhibiting his photographs since 2004. He held an exhibition of his work at the B21 gallery in Dubai in November 2007.

B21 gallery says that “‘Men of Allah’ and ‘Bab Hijab’ portray the artist trapped in the female figure and disguised in chador robes. The two series offer a sharp criticism of Iranian society’s often inhuman nature, while maintaining Ramin’s characteristic sense of humour.”

His other series entitled “Wonders of Nature” show images of clouds, twigs and trees that are split and repeated into abstract patterns.

Ramin’s younger brother Rokni is a painter and he has also had much success with his big, colorful paintings that are social commentaries on contemporary life in Iran.

Help an Artist in Need

I FIRST met Stephanie Palallos last year in Manila when Jessica Zafra brought her along to our meeting. I was immediately impressed by this dynamo of energy who had just returned from studying art in Barcelona, Spain, and was dying to go back and continue creating art.

I next met her this year, again with Jessica, when we all went to watch the taping of Bubble Gang in a studio near the South Super Highway in Makati. This time she told me that she had been accepted at the Chelsea School of Art in London, England, to do a post-graduate diploma in fine arts. The problem was that she lacked enough money to pay the tuition, and scholarships for Filipinos to study the arts in Europe are practically non-existent.

To overcome this rather large problem, Steph embarked on a Paper Crane Project to raise money for her studies. Already several people have contributed to her fund, including some strangers. Steph says she has been touched by this kindness of strangers, but is becoming increasingly worried as she is still far away from having collected enough money to start her studies in January 2007.

To see some of her work visit her website by clicking here. To read about her fundraising project, click here.

I’ve included photos of two of her scultptures above and below. I hope you like her art as much as I do, and that you will help this young Filipino artist make her dream come true!

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