Al Balad district 21,39 will feature activities centred on the historic neighbourhood Image Credit: Supplied

Jeddah, the cultural capital of Saudi Arabia, is set to host a unique art event titled “‘21,39’ Jeddah Arts”, designed to celebrate the kingdom’s modern and contemporary art movements. The two-month-long event takes its title from the geographical coordinates of Jeddah, and will feature curated exhibitions, educational workshops, seminars, visits to artists’ studios and a special programme to revive the old town. A variety of cultural activities have been organised at various venues around the city from February 4 to February 8 to mark the launch of the inaugural edition of the event. These include the opening of several exhibitions, and a symposium featuring talks, panel discussions and conversations involving leading local, regional and international art experts, on February 6. The topics to be discussed include the structure of the contemporary art scene, the direction that Saudi art is taking, the role of Saudi artists as cultural ambassadors, and addressing preconceived notions promoted by international media about art in the region. “21,39” is a non-profit initiative, chaired by HRH Princess Jawaher Bint Majed Al Saud, and organised by the Saudi Art Council.

“The Saudi Art Council is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting Saudi art locally and globally. The inaugural edition of ‘21,39’ is focusing on the history of modern and contemporary art in the kingdom, providing the people of this country an opportunity to explore and appreciate local art movements as well as the culture of Jeddah, and the wider kingdom. The reference to the city’s geographical coordinates metaphorically expresses our desire to put Jeddah on the world map as a vibrant and sustainable cultural destination. Our aim is to further encourage public, private and institutional support for the arts; foster cross-cultural understanding through art; and to create a platform for dialogue between local artists, galleries and institutions, and the global art community. We want to invite all art lovers to visit Jeddah and participate in the events during the opening week,” says Mohammad Hafiz, vice-chairman of the Saudi Art Council and co-founder of Jeddah-based Athr gallery.

Highlights of the programme include two curated exhibitions showcasing works by emerging and established Saudi artists. One is titled “Moallaqat” and includes works by well-known contemporary artists such as Ahmad Mater, Manal Al Dowayan and Saddek Wasil. The artworks in this show take inspiration from the “Moallaqat” (group of seven long Arabic poems) to present contemporary interpretations of the tradition of writing and reciting poetry, the oldest form of public art in the kingdom going back to the “Jahiliyya” (pre-Islamic era). The other exhibition, “Al-Madi Kamukkadima” (Past is Prologue) highlights the contribution to Saudi art of renowned modern masters such as Abdul Halim Radwi, Mohammad Al Salim, Mohammad Siam, Ali Saffar, Abdullah Al Shaikh and Abdullah Hammas. Saffeya Binzager, one of the first Saudi artists to hold an art exhibition in the kingdom, will be honoured by a special show at the museum dedicated to her work.

“Today there is a lot of hype around the Saudi art scene and some of our contemporary artists. But it is the modern artists, from the 1950s to the 1970s, who laid the foundation for this movement. These artists had to struggle at a time when there was little appreciation of art and even art supplies were difficult to obtain. But few people even in Saudi Arabia know about their work or their journeys. We wanted to pay tribute to these pioneers and introduce their work to the Saudi people and to the world. We have put together this exhibition of modern art with the co-operation of early collectors, the families of the artists and the artists themselves. We are also happy to be able to take visitors to Binzager’s studio and museum, where she is showing for the first time an iconic portrait of her sister,” says Raneem Farsi, event director of “21,39”.

“Galleries from Jeddah have also organised exhibitions during this period, and those from Riyadh and the Eastern Province are participating through pop-up shows in Jeddah, giving visitors an overview of today’s art scene in the kingdom,” she adds.

The educational activities planned during “21,39” include art workshops at public schools and guided tours of the exhibitions for schools and other visitors; a volunteer programme designed to involve people in helping to promote and conduct the various activities; mentoring sessions for young Saudi artists by established artists; and lectures and workshops for adults. “Our main focus was to engage the local community, and we are overwhelmed by the support we have got from local families, institutions and corporates, and volunteers from all walks of life,” Hafiz says.

A special feature of the event is the focus on the historical Balad area of Jeddah, through a varied programme designed to facilitate its evolution into a place of inspiration and creativity. The programme includes clean-up and restoration of the area, site-specific installations and performances, and workshops for students at schools in the area. “We have arranged tours of this old part of town, and students from schools in the area will work with local graffiti artists to create some murals there. ‘21,39’ will always include a heritage element, highlighting different heritage locations in the kingdom,” Hafiz says.

“We want to make these two months very exciting for Jeddah residents and all visitors to the city,” he adds.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.

Visit www.21-39.com to register for workshops.