DUBAI: As in other parts of the world, art, culture and entertainment have taken a back seat in Saudi Arabia during the worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But now, with infection rates under control in the Kingdom thanks to a successful vaccination campaign, a two-year period of shutdowns and event cancellations is finally over.
Take December, which promises to be a particularly busy month of action in the Saudi cultural calendar, with events spanning the gamut from exhibitions and in-person concerts to grand openings, many of which had been postponed since the start of the pandemic. .
The first will be Misk Art Week, which will open at Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall in Riyadh on December 1. This annual week-long exhibition program is organized by the Misk Art Institute, operating under the auspices of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Next comes the first edition of Riyad Art, billed as the largest public civic art initiative of its kind in the world. From December 5 to 8, he will present 12 programs launched by the Royal Commission for the City of Riyadh to transform the Saudi capital into “a gallery without walls”.
Meanwhile, in the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah, the Jameel Art Center is set to open its long-awaited multidisciplinary art complex, Hayy Jameel, on December 6.
The annual Red Sea Film Festival will also arrive in Jeddah in December. The December 6-15 event, first launched in 2019, is proud to showcase emerging talent from Saudi Arabia, the Arab region and the developing world.
Then, to top it off, the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale opens on December 11 in the new JAX district of Diriyah, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site At-Turaif, the first capital of the dynasty. of Saud founded in the 15th century. . The event – the first in Saudi Arabia – will run until March 11.
Culture is an integral part of the Saudi Vision 2030 reform plan, launched five years ago to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil as well as embrace sectors such as tourism, technology and the creative industries.
Philip Tinari, director and CEO of the Beijing-based UCCA Contemporary Art Center and chief curator of the Diriyah Biennale, told Arab News: Seeing government initiatives at all levels.
“Another big part is related to this generation of artists who, perhaps before these changes, lived abroad and have now decided to settle down where they find new vectors of support.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak turned into a pandemic in early 2020, Saudi Arabia was preparing to become a global destination for the arts.
Seasonal festivals were already popping up across the country, and the ancient northwestern town of AlUla held a variety of concerts, lectures and outdoor exhibitions.
The cultural explosion was sparked in part by the Kingdom’s decision to open up to foreign tourists in September 2019 with a new electronic visa system. However, as the health crisis went global a few months later, the country was forced to shut down again.
Now that international travel has resumed with COVID-19 protocols in place, the cultural floodgates are once again open and visitors to the Kingdom are spoiled for choice.
Hayy Jameel is one of the most anticipated openings of the year. Designed by multi-award-winning architecture studio waiwai, the new Jameel Art House in Jeddah has been touted as a vibrant and creative hub for the community.
Antonia Carver, director of Art Jameel, told Arab News: “Hayy Jameel has been in the planning for over 20 years, but it couldn’t have come to fruition at a more opportune time.
“The launch of our Creative District accompanies an incredibly exciting calendar of events. The opening season opens to the public from December 6 and runs throughout the spring, as cultural partners launch their spaces and we open the independent Hayy Cinema, making the Jeddah complex the true home of arts.
Regardless, the creative arts environment in Saudi Arabia is maturing rapidly, increasing the demand for spaces dedicated to exhibitions, screenings and performances.
Carver said: “It needs independent, community-driven efforts, alongside larger-scale government-led initiatives.
“The Ministry of Culture and other government entities are actively promoting the nonprofit sector and organizations like Art Jameel, given our mandate to give back to Saudi Arabia, support artists and nurture creative communities.
“To balance the current frenetic pace of development and the demands of Saudi artists, we also aim to highlight opportunities to develop long-term research, ideas and skills; explore and document local histories; develop contextual learning resources in Arabic; and pollinate the different forms of creative art, bringing together visual arts, cinema, performance, architecture, design, etc.
While Jeddah positions itself as one of the region’s premier cultural destinations, Riyadh refuses to be left out. The first in the cultural calendar of the Saudi capital is Misk Art Week.
Reem Al-Sultan, CEO of Misk Art Institute, told Arab News: “The fifth edition of Misk Art Week brings together emerging and established artists in Saudi Arabia and around the world with experts in critical and cultural discourse.
“Misk Art Institute offers an insightful array of multidisciplinary practices and international perspectives, providing a unique educational experience for participating creators and audiences engaged in these exciting conversations. “
The opening a few days later will be Riyadh Art, staged by the Royal Commission for the City of Riyadh, of which the Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium is a part. The program includes an awards ceremony and will bring together 20 sculptors from Saudi Arabia, the Arab region and around the world.
Khalid Al-Hazzani, architect and project manager of CRCR, told Arab News: “Riyad Art continues to transform the city into a gallery without walls with the launch of the Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium, its second initiative.
“As art and culture reflect the spirit of a city, we look forward to contributing to Riyadh’s vibrant artistic season in December and providing a platform for intercultural dialogue and exchange. “
The Riyadh Art Project is just one of four city megaprojects launched by King Salman on March 19, 2019. Dubbed a milestone in Riyadh’s mission to become one of the happiest cities in the world, the initiative will involve the installation of more than 1,000 works of art across the metropolis.
The Diriyah Biennale is undoubtedly the biggest attraction of the crowded cultural season. Developed by a team of international curators led by Tinari, the event will feature works from around 70 artists examining the theme “Feeling the Stones”.
The biennial event will alternate annually between a contemporary art exhibition and an Islamic art exhibition under the auspices of the Diriyah Foundation, chaired by Prince Badr Al-Saud.
“I think the Diriyah Biennale will consolidate much of the progress made,” Tinari said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s cultural awakening.
“What’s really special about it is the scale – spread over 12,000 square meters of newly converted warehouse space that will be dedicated to this event going forward.
“I hope that the Diriyah Biennale will become a benchmark for the scene in general and that other types of artistic events will gather around it.