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.”
Saudi Arabia escaped virtually untouched when mass uprisings toppled Arab leaders last year, as a Facebook call for a “day of rage” went unheeded amid lavish government spending and shows of support for the royal family by religious and tribal leaders.
However, the Saudi authorities are sensitive to any suggestion that their people might emulate the uprisings, making it difficult for artists to address a subject that held the whole Arab world rapt.
“It is not the right time to put red lines. Now everyone is crossing red lines... Even if they do restrict them, artists will find their way around it,” Saudi artist Ahmed Mater said.
Other taboos include anything seen as blasphemous, criticism of the conservative nature of Saudi society, and sex or nudity.
Saudi artists say they have to find imaginative ways to maneuver around the censors to ensure the continuation of a local art scene that is still at an early stage of development.
One, in a piece called “Food for Thought,” displays baking trays lined with hundreds of cassette tapes of religious lectures recorded and distributed in the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia experienced a wave of religious extremism.
As the viewer backs away, the words haram (forbidden) and batil (wrong) become legible in the arrangement of the cassettes.
“We want to avoid being overly controversial and stepping over a lot of toes because that will be counter-productive to us,” Alireza said.
“The reason I find Saudi art particularly good and inspiring is because the restrictions the artists face is what actually lights the fuel under their creativity, forcing them to think more deeply and to be more subtle in their work,” she added.
Edge of Arabia, the group behind the exhibition, has showcased Saudi artists’ work around the world since 2008, with displays in London, Dubai, Venice, Istanbul and Berlin, but this is its first public show inside the kingdom.
“I think a lot has changed in Saudi Arabia in the last four years and now is the right time for our exhibition. You should not force things. 2012 is the right time in Saudi,” said Stephen Stapleton, founder of Edge of Arabia.
The exhibition, which opened last week, includes more than 50 works by 22 Saudi artists giving their views on the country.
Artist Ahmad Angawi brings the Saudi public into his work by installing microphones throughout various locations in Jeddah for his project, “Street Pulse.”
Participants record messages into microphones and hear those left by others through headphones attached to his installation, hundreds of microphones bound together in the shape of an atom.
“It shows the various voices we have, all confined into one sphere. The idea behind it is, if we don’t speak up, if we remain silent, if we keep putting our feelings aside, one day. we will explode,” Angawi said.
“I firmly believe we do not need some sort of revolution. but that still does not mean that we should be static. We need to develop gradually in a way that suits the place,” he said.
Angawi said he accepted that he might not be able to play some of the comments people recorded, and that finding the right balance between freedom of expression and the demands of a conservative society would be difficult.
“We are at the early stages. This is a launch, a beginning... Baby steps are always the ones that will last,” Alireza said.
“The giant leaps are the ones that cause backlashes that may force you to take a step back,” she added.
(Editing by Angus McDowall and Sonya Hepinstall)
This story was corrected in paragraph 17 to change typo to "she"