Saudi artists test limits of expression in rare show

Wed Jan 25, 2012 6:30am EST
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By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Standing on a large floor map in a Jeddah art gallery, Hamza Serafi places a yellow sign inscribed "Caution: revolution (take 2)" over Egypt and then turns to Saudi Arabia.

"Evolution not revolution" reads the sign he plans to place over the conservative Islamic kingdom, where an exhibition organizers call Saudi Arabia's first public show of contemporary art has opened this month, entitled "We need to talk."

In addressing last year's political turmoil through his work, the Saudi artist is testing the boundaries of self expression in a kingdom where direct criticism of the authorities is not tolerated, cinema and theatre are banned and art and media are censored.

"It is always a choice to either be blunt and vulgar and say something that will upset people and then your work will be censored. or you do artwork that has a very valuable message, sustainable and gentle," Serafi said.

Saudi Arabia, a country ruled over by the al-Saud royal family in alliance with powerful conservative clerics, has no elected parliament or political parties and applies a rigid variation of Sharia law.

Although King Abdullah has slowly pushed for society to grow more open by encouraging dialogue and urging media to report on previously taboo social ills, a government-linked committee still had to vet all the artwork on show.

"It has not been as difficult as one would expect (to get art past the censors) because the medium of contemporary art can always be interpreted in various ways, some controversial, some not, depending on how the viewer looks at it," said Aya Alireza, the show's assistant curator.

"I try to disabuse (the authorities) of the notion that the works are meant to criticize the government or are inciting people toward revolt or rebellion, which is not what the artists are trying to achieve in any case."   Continued...

<p>An artwork titled "Food for Thought", consisting of hundreds of cassette tapes of religious lectures recorded and distributed in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia experienced a wave of religious extremism, is displayed during Saudi Arabia&rsquo;s first public show of contemporary art entitled "We need to talk" at al Furusia Marina in Jeddah, January 23, 2012. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil</p>