Arabia’s Art Mecca
An avant-garde festival, unique galleries, and a rich artistic heritage. Artist Dana Awartani shows us Jeddah’s burgeoning cultural scene.
Saudi Arabia might not be the first destination you think of when it comes to cutting-edge art. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that there’s a vibrant creative scene burgeoning in Jeddah. After all, the coastal city for centuries has acted as a crossroads for Muslim travelers from across the globe. And young Saudi artists like Dana Awartani are at the forefront of taking traditional Islamic motifs into the modern age.
Born and raised in Jeddah, Awartani became attuned to her artistic inclination on playdates, when she found herself stealing crayons from her friends—even though she had her own. “I knew this meant I wanted to be an artist or a kleptomaniac,” she remembers. Fortunately, she settled on the former, and went on to study at Central St. Martins in London followed by an apprenticeship with a Turkish master to study the thousand-year-old craft of calligraphy. These days, her work has brought her global attention, and she’s been in high-profile shows like the Venice Biennale, India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Art Basel Hong Kong and Dubai Art.
When she’s home in Jeddah, she finds inspiration in the city’s rich cultural offerings. Here are some of her favorite art-focused haunts.
“21-39 is the most important event of the year,” Awartani declares of the annual exhibition, which runs from February through May and is named for Jeddah’s geographic coordinates. It spans exhibition spaces, malls, galleries, and pop-ups across town, with openings, symposiums, and international speakers. The event “is giving back to the people,” she says, noting its free educational programs and promotion of artists who might otherwise not have a platform.
Saudi Arabia’s leading contemporary gallery, located in a nondescript office building, represents Awartani as well as other prominent Saudi artists including Sarah Abu Abdallah, Ahmed Mater and Abdullah Al-Othman. “They always do things that are very different. Right now they have an all-woman show.” Athr Gallery: 5th Floor Offices, Serafi Mega Mall, Tahlia Street; +966 12-284-5009
Qaswar Hafez’s “passion is modern art,” says Awartani. His gallery is currently closed before reopening in a new location, but visitors can set up appointments to see its collections from a global cohort of artists, including Saudi Awdh al-Zahrani, Italian Maïmouna Guerresi, Lebanese Ali Chaaban, and Syrian Osama Esid. Hafez Gallery: By appointment only; +966 12-613-4111
Corniche Sculpture Park
Come sunset, Awartani likes to join the throngs of families and groups of friends picnicking and strolling along Jeddah’s picturesque seaside promenade. One of the most popular stretches of the Corniche is the open-air sculpture garden on the southern end, with pieces by the likes of Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Joan Miró.
“Jeddah was always a stopping-off point for pilgrims to Mecca, so it’s a melting pot of cultures, with influences from Egypt, India, Iran,” says Awartani. “The government is trying to preserve that. Balad for me is a must.” Jeddah’s atmospheric historic district is always a source of inspiration for creatives, and is the perfect setting for the House of Traditional Arts, an initiative Awartani helped set up. The institute “teaches people the traditional crafts of Saudi Arabia through public workshops.” The House of Traditional Arts: Al Dhahab, Al-Balad; +966 660-3177