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The Medicis in the desert

The Medicis in the desert

Ahmed Mater and Ashraf Fayadh were best friends. One is now Saudi Arabia’s most illustrious artist and cultural commissar. The other languishes in a dark prison. Nicolas Pelham charts their rise and fall

Ahmed Mater and Ashraf Fayadh were best friends. One is now Saudi Arabia’s most illustrious artist and cultural commissar. The other languishes in a dark prison. Nicolas Pelham charts their rise and fall

Nicolas Pelham | May 31st 2018

When Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, visited New York earlier this year, the face of Ahmed Mater, the kingdom’s most celebrated artist, was beamed onto an enormous billboard in Times Square. In recent years, he has been feted at exhibitions in London, New York and Venice. He dominates the Saudi art scene so thoroughly that his peers struggle for attention. “He’s the only artist anyone writes about,” says one Saudi curator. In 2017 Mater was appointed as artistic director of the Prince’s cultural and educational foundation, entrusted to promote art across the kingdom and liberalise the school system. He plays a crucial role in the enormously ambitious plan for economic and social transformation, which aims to wean the country off reliance on oil revenues, strip down the power of clerics and dispel a reputation for medieval obscurantism and misogyny.

Prince Muhammad has travelled the world to convince business leaders, tech titans and entertainment impresarios that Saudi Arabia is a place where both popular and high culture can flourish. For the first time in over 30 years, cinemas show films. For the first time ever, pop stars perform in concert halls. Mater has accompanied the prince on his pilgrimage as the epitome of the country’s artistic reawakening. When the Saudi Crown Prince met Xi Jinping, he brought Mater along and gave the Chinese president one of his paintings as a gift.

The story behind Mater’s rise is more complex and ambiguous than his current pre-eminence suggests. It illuminates the unprecedented liberalisation that many of the country’s cultural elite are experiencing at the moment, as well as the compromises with power that they must still make. Mater did not reach the pinnacle without help. But some of his companions have fallen by the wayside. “Of course”, one Saudi artist tells me, “it wouldn’t have happened without Ashraf.”

The body politic
 ABOVE  “X-ray –Talisman 3” by Ahmed Mater, 2008. ABOVE RIGHT  “Paradise Has Many Gates” by Ajlan Gharem, 2015

Ashraf Fayadh and Ahmed Mater were born a year apart – Fayadh in 1980, Mater in 1979. They grew up in Abha, a city in the craggy mountains near the Yemeni border in the south-western corner of the country. This was the last part of the peninsula to be conquered by the House of Saud in 1929. The victors comprehensively extirpated the more colourful strains of Yemeni Islam that had flourished there and imposed a monochrome version of the religion in their place. At the time that the pair were born, extremists attempted to overthrow the monarchy, which they perceived as decadent and Westernised. Flushed out of Mecca, they streamed south through Abha into Yemen, where they established a base in Dammaj, just across the border.

The preachers of Dammaj broadcast their uncompromising creed to a receptive audience in Abha. The city’s traditional beehive-shaped daub houses were bulldozed, not least because their walls were decorated with frivolous paintings, and their communal spaces encouraged the sin of ikhtilat (mixing with women). Teachers made their pupils erase the heads of animals they had drawn, lest God punish them for idolatry. If children were caught listening to music, they were warned that God would pour molten iron in their ears on Judgment Day and send snakes to crawl through their graves. Of the 15 Saudi hijackers on 9/11, 12 came from the vicinity of Abha. This was a world away from the luxurious villas and Westernised elites of Jeddah, which had incubated an earlier generation of artists.

Best friends as teenagers, Fayadh and Mater escaped Abha’s stifling strictures by climbing into the mountains, where they could smoke shisha and draw in their sketchbooks. They would recite poetry – Fayadh in his deep melodious voice, Mater at a higher pitch. On a clear day, they could see the Red Sea and would imagine the world beyond, full of art powerful enough to liberate the kingdom of its clerical yoke. Because Mater studied medicine at university he could draw the human body without religious sanction. One of his earliest works, “Illumination”, is a series of X-rays of a torso encased within texts, so that they look like pages of the Koran surrounded with commentaries. Fayadh constructed installations crammed with everything the clerics considered sinful – naked limbs, music, photography and public performance. One photograph on his Instagram feed shows him fondling the nipples of a female mannequin.

In the absence of any art education, the pair acquired their training by trawling the internet, which arrived in the country at the beginning of the 21st century. They bypassed the formal techniques drilled in art colleges, adopting forms that were organic and raw. Though they did not know the term then, they were multi­media artists. Mater animated his x-rays. After shooting themselves in the head, his ethereal bodies morphed into petrol pumps, their arms becoming nozzles.

A circle of like-minded renegades and the odd lapsed jihadist coalesced around the two artists. Abdulnasser Gharem painted a group of artists in Bedouin robes in the velvet colours of Caravaggio, using a mannequin for a model because real-life nudes were prohibited. Arwa Al Neami turned the niqab into a sex object. In “Red Lipstick”, a coquettish mouth – of a “beautiful, blood-stained bitch” as she describes it – is the only visible part of a body otherwise obscured by black veils. She developed the theme further in a series she called “Never Never Land”. At a fairground in Abha, she filmed women shrieking in defiance of the religious police’s prohibition against making noise. On the bumper cars – the one place, until recently, where women were permitted to drive – she showed them moving steadily, as though respecting the highway code, in order to demonstrate what good road-users they were. Relationships in the artistic community blossomed. Fayadh curated Al Neami’s show; Mater married her. “We were messengers of revolution, change and new ideas,” she remembers, using a term – “messenger” – that Muslims reserve for the Prophet Muhammad. “We were not just drawing beautiful things.”

Had it not been for Abha’s governor, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, these artists might have slipped into obscurity. Alarmed by his province’s contribution to extremism, including 9/11, he sought to challenge the sway held by the clerical caste. He built an artists’ village in Abha and called it miftaha, “the place of opening”. The architecture was inspired by the city’s historic beehive houses. He invited many artists, including Mater and Fayadh, to move to the studios. Even Britain’s Prince Charles accepted a residency, where he dabbled in watercolours.

The patronage of Abha’s governor enabled the community to grow. They formed an art collective to promote their work and called it Edge of Arabia, to highlight their geographical marginality and intellectual distance from the country’s stifling ideology. Fayadh was one of the prime movers. He spoke better English, which gave him an advantage with foreigners. “He was lovely, tall, intellectual, gentle, interested in the world,” remembers Kate Seelye, an American journalist who hired him as her interpreter.

But his Palestinian origins disadvantaged him. The curators of an exhibition in London on Saudi art declined to include his work. As a non-national, he hadn’t been permitted to study at Saudi universities. Instead he went to Al Azhar University in Gaza as the Oslo peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority began to unravel. There, his consciousness of his Palestinian identity bloomed. Fayadh channelled his anger and alienation into increasingly nationalist poetry and art. In a series of pieces, Spiderman, dressed in the Palestinian tricolour, squats on Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock ready to pounce.

The divergent trajectories of Mater and Fayadh are already apparent in a photograph from 2006 that shows them standing on the steps of the British Museum in London on an overcast day. Fayadh is wearing a trench coat with a Palestinian kiffaya draped around his neck like a scarf. Mater wears the full national Saudi dress of a white thobe and headscarf topped with a black rope.

Surfing the web
“Spiderscarf” by Ashraf Fayadh

As the Arab spring of 2011 toppled neighbouring despots in Yemen and Egypt, the possibility of change in their own country gripped many Saudis. Fayadh and Mater spent ever more time in Jeddah, the most cosmopolitan and liberal city in the kingdom, where they discovered a larger circle of free-thinkers. “In Saudi Arabia, there are so many atheists but they can’t talk about their beliefs,” Mater told Vice in 2014. Art became a means to express deep convictions obliquely. Each work required the approval of a censor, but subtleties were often missed. The censors banned a portrait of religious police enjoying ice-cream cones, but licensed a stylised image of planes flying into the Twin Towers once a third skyscraper was added alongside.

Fayadh believed that commercialisation was as much of a threat to good art as the religious authorities. Many Arab artists based in Dubai had abandoned their social consciences to produce depoliticised work that pandered to the markets. When Sotheby’s, a London auction house, held its first exhibition of Gulf art in Jeddah in 2013, Fayadh curated an alternative, showcasing a new generation of angry Saudi artists. He called it Amoud Nur – Mostly Visible – and won plaudits from visiting curators.

Its success sparked a series of underground spin-offs. Mater and Al Neami opened a Jeddah studio that offered a refuge from the religious police prowling the streets. Artists gave lectures and showed their films, even though cinema was banned. Men and women mixed in the crowd. Men wore shorts cut above the knee; women shed their veils. “Come naked,” said Al Neami, when an exhibitor asked what he should wear. When the religious police came knocking, everyone fled through a hole in the back wall. Mater was conscious that he and his fellow artists were the avant garde. “The small space, the gathering without officials or control, is the future for Saudi art…and a new voice of socio-political art and activism,” he said in a panel discussion in Washington, DC, in 2016.

Others pushed the boundaries still further, staging art shows in their homes that were as fleeting as they were famous. Bouncers were posted at the door and guests instructed to cover their mobile-phone cameras with stickers. Inside, gas canisters, ready to explode, were decked in black veils. A woman suffering from heavy periods exposed images of her leaking vagina on a plinth. The parties grew more raucous. A visiting Syrian artist remembers raves in the desert where couples copulated on car bonnets. Design, an arts magazine edited by a Saudi woman, printed a double-page spread of a cleric sitting cross-legged on the floor, fashioning a toy mosque out of balloons. Religion, it seemed to say, was just so much hot air.

Mater never went that far. He was a community doctor and at the bedsides of his patients he had learnt how to deliver bad news gently. In Jeddah he became expert at building alliances between the ruling family, the liberal elite and the clerics. His work had the post-modern knack of offering different meanings depending on the audience. “Magnetism” portrays iron filings that appear as if they have prostrated themselves around a black magnet that looks like the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine. It could be a celebration of collective spirituality or a parody of prayer. “They [the religious police] think ‘Magnetism’ is very religious, and the others think it’s very atheist. I don’t know. In the end, an artwork has more than one explanation. I call it visual magic,” he said in the panel discussion.

He adopted the same approach in a stunning series of photographs that record the demolition of Old Mecca and its replacement with megalithic skyscrapers. From a top-floor hotel suite in the world’s third-tallest building, the Kaaba is reduced to the size and significance of a piece of liquorice. Neon billboards for global brands outshine the gates of the Grand Mosque. Conservationists hailed the work as a commentary on the commercialisation and over-development of sacred space. Developers saw a paean to their achievements. In “Desert of Pharan”, the book Mater compiled out of his photographs, his own opinion is tucked away on page 579. The images, he writes, depict “the trauma of mass destruction and reconstruction, seeking to portray intimate ritual against the backdrop of brutal development driven by a late capitalist machine.”

Mater’s reticence and artful ambiguity – as well as his Saudi passport – may have spared him from a religious backlash that struck his colleague. The Arab spring and the war on terror had left the clerics feeling threatened. In an effort to reassert their control, they clamped down on public morals. In August 2013 Fayadh was arrested by the religious police for one provocation too many. He was charged with apostasy on New Year’s Day 2014. Fayadh’s accusers seized on every shred of evidence: his curly ponytail, his anguished poetry which ridiculed unreflective faith in God, and photos of unmarried Saudi women found on his mobile were all cited against him. Fayadh made for a convenient target: his Palestinian heritage made him ineligible for citizenship, so he had no tribe to defend him.

For a few months, Saudi artists became his tribe. Where others timidly intervened behind the scenes, Mater bravely led a public campaign. He rallied diplomats and human-rights groups and even the Saudi press, turning Fayadh’s arrest into a cause célèbre. Fayadh was released on bail for four months in August 2013 but subsequently re-arrested. In November 2015, he was sentenced to death. “His freedom and life are at stake,” Mater tweeted. PEN, an international free-speech organisation, launched a global petition that was signed by Nobel laureates and international artists. Unnerved by the outcry, the clerics commuted the sentence to 800 lashes and eight years in jail. But thereafter Mater’s calls for Fayadh’s release grew increasingly faint. He began to refer to him as a poet or activist, not a fellow artist. He last tweeted about Fayadh’s plight years ago.

Praise the lord
 “Magnetism III” by Ahmed Mater, 2012

Mater’s campaign against Fayadh’s conviction was as outspoken as he got – but it made his own work harder. After PEN took up the case, Mater’s own sponsor, a Jeddah tycoon, abandoned him as a liability. It took months to find another patron. Perhaps he went silent because it was the only way his art could thrive. He eventually found a sponsor in Ithraa, the cultural arm of Aram­co, the state oil company. Later he had an audience with Muhammad bin Salman.

By his own account, he took ten minutes to convince the Crown Prince of his vision of a Saudi Arabia weaned off oil and transformed into a creative economy. The Prince immediately appointed him artistic director of misk, his cultural foundation. Now he lives in a villa in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh – the plushest gated community in the capital of the richest state in the Middle East. His next-door neighbours are ambassadors, tycoons and a woman willing to offer a reward of 1,000 riyal ($226) for the return of her lost cat.

I visited Mater at the foundation in February. From the outside the misk building looked like an old-fashioned fortress with buttresses, heavy teak doors and windows in the shape of arrow slits. When you enter, you are greeted by a sleek modern interior. The walls are made of glass and rooms are decorated in bright, primary colours (which led one staff member to describe them as “Google offices”). Men and women work alongside each other. There is no sign of traditional Saudi hospitality. Visitors are left to fend for themselves at the self-service coffee machine.

A short, stocky man, Mater was wearing the traditional uniform of the Saudi bureaucracy: a red-chequered headdress and white robe. The only concession to personal style was his shoes – blue suede with gold buckles. His desk was bare, apart from an Apple computer. “We are honest and humble” read the decorative graffiti on the air-conditioning pipes in his office. At his side sat a young Saudi PR woman who had graduated from the London School of Economics, and vetted our interview. “What Ahmed means to say is…”, she interrupted, whenever he threatened to go off piste.

In person, Mater is animated and coiled with energy. During our conversation, I would look down at my notes only to find, when I looked up, that he had scurried away to huddle with his staff about some idea that had seized him. His mind buzzes with plans – for a film festival, an art week in Riyadh and pavilion at the architecture biennale in Venice. He has commissioned a firm of Italian architects to design a new building on the outskirts of the capital that he describes, variously, as a “fantastic platform”, a “casual meeting space” and a “holistic workspace” (Abha will get an art centre too). It will be built from salt bricks made from the residue of desalination plants. “We’ll have music, photography, theatre and experimental art interplaying sound and art – and a residency for music.” When he spoke, he screwed up his eyes and tensed his body as he hunched forward. “We are building a new future, building a new history, a new model. We’re not copy­ing another model. Why replicate the old model?” A certain studied modesty makes his ambition seem less grandiose. “We’ll make mistakes, but I like that it’s not about perfection, it’s about love.”

Western curators who had previously snubbed Saudi art as unformed and immature are now discovering its freshness. French and American museums, including MOMA and the Guggenheim, have all given space to Saudi art and artists, often of Mater’s work. The galleries of Jeddah are filled with provocative installations that are electrified by the country’s new-found freedoms. In an exhibition called “Refusing to be Still”, Nasser al-Salem scattered the letters of Koranic suras across rice paper, bringing an anarchic sensibility to the holy texts. Muhannad Shono’s giant model of what some have seen as the Prophet Muhammad flat on his back and as still as a corpse with a white shroud over his face. The soundtrack that plays overhead is more gibberish than revelation. Zahra al-Ghamdi’s vast installation of leather fungi took over the floor and walls in the Athr gallery, offering hope that the land devoured by developers may one day be reclaimed.

“It’s astonishing what’s happening,” says Seelye, the journalist, who now organises exhibitions on Mater’s behalf in America. “Instead of exporting radical Islam, they are exporting art. If you can raise young Saudis on art classes instead of religious indoctrination about how horrible the infidel is, maybe you can build a better future.”

Others, however, see only a cynical attempt by an autocratic regime to polish its reputation in the West. Mona Kareem, Fayadh’s friend and translator, calls it “artwash”. Mater once championed independent galleries and curators, but centralised cultural and entertainment authorities now dictate what may – or may not – be exhibited and performed. Satirical Saudis now refer to these authorities as Hai’a, the same acronym that had previously been used for the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The organisers of Jeddah’s annual art week complain that they have been starved of funds. The exhibition that accompanied Mater on his international mission with Prince Muhammad was full of innocuous works of the kind he used to decry, such as photographs of mosque interiors.

In some lights, the space for free expression in Prince Muhammad’s Arabia has contracted. The underground exhibitions that used to accompany Jeddah’s art week have been absent two years in a row. The Hanger – an unlicensed gallery in Jeddah – has closed down. Its curator now sells health insurance. Some artists even complain that the dissolution of the religious police has deprived them of a subject for mockery. “We’ll end up with the normality I ran home from Sydney to escape,” complains one, who returned to Jeddah in 2015.

One subject remains taboo – the nature of political authority. Artists are still studiously silent when the government arrests religious and secular intellectuals for crimes as insignificant as failing to retweet official talking points. Some cheered when their former patrons were held hostage in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel by Prince Muhammad, who extorted large portions of their fortunes in the name of fighting corruption. “They are as willing accomplices of dictatorship as the clerics were,” sneered a Saudi historian over ginger tea. Everyone is still fearful. Well-known commentators not only switched off their phones before talking to me but left them in a different room. At one gallery, men in leather jackets pretended to take selfies while recording my conversation on their phones.

Brothers in art
ABOVE Ashraf Fayadh and Ahmed Mater outside the British Museum in 2006. ABOVE RIGHT  “Never Never Land” by Arwa Al Neami, 2014

When I last saw Mater, he seemed oblivious to the antipathies he had stirred. He held a retrospective of his work on the waterfront of King Abdullah Economic City (known as KAEC and pronounced “cake”). Despite costing $27bn, the city has struggled to attract residents and business, and feels like a ghost town. Mater seemed to relish the ambiguity in his choice of venue. Was he giving the Saudi construction industry a shot in the arm or mocking the extravagance of another white elephant? His hosts, the developers, had laid a sumptuous open-air feast beneath palm-trees. Unusually, a woman sang on the waterfront.

Mater had chosen to display his work on the scaffolding of a nearby building site. The crème de la crème of Jeddah society trouped round the rough cement in their finest, admiring his photos of Mecca – construction sites exhibited amid construction. Migrant workers on their bunk beds occupied the highest rungs; Mecca’s opulent new hotels, with their suites costing $3,000 a night, the lowest. For the duration of this exhibition, the meek had inherited the Earth and all were equal in the eyes of God. Or perhaps that was just what I read into it. KAEC’s CEO seemed to see something different. He thanked Mater for choosing his city, praised his artistry and offered to open a new artists’ colony in his high-speed railway station.

No one was sure whether Mater would appear. He acts like the Scarlet Pimpernel or the Cheshire Cat – self-effacing with a charming, enigmatic smile. When he did show up, he insisted that he had nothing to say, that others were more worthy speech-makers. People still thronged around him, eager to get a piece of him.

I finally extricated Mater from his adoring crowd. “It’s the Medici time again,” he said. Then, as now, a dynasty had used artists and scientists to undermine the religious authorities. “Art is a political tool to moderate the church to accept others.” I wanted to bring up Fayadh, but one of Mater’s friends had warned me off. Instead I asked him if he will keep making art. Of course, he answered. But when I posed the same question to a functionary at MISK, he was adamant that Mater would conform. And if not? “It’s the last work he’ll do.”