Rashed Al Shashai, Remains, 2016, Archival print on cotton paper, Edition of 5

Rashed Al Shashai is a prominent figure in the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia. The conceptual artist is a founding member of the Saudi Arabia Fine Art Society and the Art Education Society, and the founder of the Tasami Centre for Visual Arts, an independent space that supports cutting edge art in the kingdom.

His work explores the tensions between modern life, evolving social norms and the religious precepts that shape everyday life. The artist uses photography and installation to address issues such as extremism, escapism and growing apathy in society.

For his first exhibition in Dubai, titled Salvation, Al Shashai references a terrorist attack that is intertwined with a personal story to examine the manner in which extremist groups exploit and manipulate the concept of spiritual salvation, and how their flawed understanding of morality and redemption, which justifies violence and extremism affects vulnerable communities. The show includes photographic works, three dimensional wall installations and a video based work.

The incident that this body of work is based on was the seizure of the Grand Mosque in 1979, by a group of armed men who were followers of Salafi ‘rejectionist’ militant Juhayman Al Otaybi. The crisis shook the entire country, but it has a special significance for Al Shashai’s family because his grandfather was among the people trapped inside the mosque at that time.

Despite the complete lockdown of the mosque, his grandfather managed to escape by climbing through a small window that was shaped like an Islamic star. Most of Al Otaybi’s male followers were killed after Saudi authorities retook the mosque, and the rest of the community moved out of the village.

The artist visited the abandoned village of Mandasah near Makkah, where this event took place, and took photographs that document the ruin that was left behind and the current state of decay of the former Salafi stronghold whose thriving community fell prey to the ideology of the power hungry fringe group. But the star shaped window appears as a recurring motif in the artworks symbolising salvation and holding out hope for a better future.

Al Shashai’s sepia toned images capture the dilapidated buildings in the village and the inside of a deserted home of a man who was a friend of his grandfather and lost his life in the attack.

Other pictures taken from the hilltop show the stark contrast with the development that has taken place in the surrounding areas indicating how the rest of society has moved on, while time seems to stand still in the village. Another photograph of feeding troughs speaks about the fact that the once bustling village has now become a grazing ground for cattle.

In a series of images, titled From the Skylight the artist has cut out a star shaped hole in the fence surrounding a crumbling, empty home as a symbolic escape route for people trapped in such situations.

Al Shashai has also created a three dimensional version of the star shape in his installations by a skillful use of angled mirrors, in which his photographs are reflected. In one such installation, the image seen on the outside is that of a mosque, while the reflection of the reverse side in the mirror shows a graveyard, subtly conveying the consequences of religious extremism.

Another installation invites viewers to look inside a star shaped window to view a video of the village. The images from the video are reflected in mirrors creating an endless circle of images, perhaps indicating the cycle of destruction and regeneration in a message of hope.

“I see the star shaped window through which my grandfather escaped as a symbol of self-assured salvation — a process that is tied to the ability to think for yourself and overcome any obstacle. This sense of confidence is apparent and easily perceived by others through one’s character and actions. It stands in stark contrast with the forced idea of salvation that is promoted by extremists in their efforts to gain political control,” Al Shashai says.

Salvation will run at Ayyam Gallery Dubai, DIFC until May 26.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.