February 26, 2018

Ahaad al-Amoudi: Imagining Saudi Past and Future through Art

NIUN for Millennial Gulf
"The future is NIUN." (Ahaad al-Amoudi and Michael Mogensen)

Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art scene is becoming more vibrant by the day. The recent opening of social space as well as increased interest in Saudi artists of both genders has facilitated access and visibility to their work. Named after the geographical coordinates of Jeddah (21.5433°N, 39.1728°E), 21,39 – Saudi Arabia’s contemporary art festival – opened earlier this month with a number of exhibitions and workshops. Entitled “Refusing to Be Still,” the exhibition included the work of Ahaad al-Amoudi, a young multidisciplinary Saudi artist.

Ahaad’s recent work is ethnographic in nature, using traditions and culture to inform and map the rapid changes taking place in Saudi Arabia. Ahaad graduated from the Royal College of Art with master’s in print and is currently teaching at Dar Al Hekma University. AGSIW spoke with Ahaad about her latest exhibition, which included “Those Who Do Not Know of Falcons Grill Them” and “NIUN,” as well as her creation of narratives around what she envisions as Saudi future.

AGSIW: Tell us more about “Those Who Do Not Know of Falcons Grill Them.” Why did you choose to employ elements that draw upon local heritage and tradition?

Clip from “Those Who Do Not Know of Falcons Grill Them”

Ahaad: From my perspective in terms of my production of art, I feel like I see myself returning to these kinds of local traditions, local heritage, and actions that we performed in art and music. I use local tradition, such as the one I’m using in my work, which is a dance performance called the Alkhubaiti. This dance is the focus of my work; it is the meaning and the concept behind the piece itself. The movements and gestures that are happening within that kind of performance are a reflection to me of the changes that are occurring around me, within my country, and within society.

AGSIW: How does reintroducing a dance like Alkhubaiti, and other cultural practices, factor in the new national narrative being constructed in Saudi Arabia?

Ahaad: I think it bases a lot of the actions moving forward that we take. It is more like a definition of who we are moving forward. Yes, there are changes that are occurring, but we still have to stay true to where we came from because these things define who we are. The Alkhuabiti dance was traditionally done as part of a preparation for war, and then through time, it transformed into this kind of performance that is done at weddings, events, and ceremonies. It has become a kind of a folklorist act. I like this element of change that happens to traditions. They don’t stay as they are; they move during time and this move also adds to the language of the piece itself. We are moving forward. So many changes are occurring, and I am personally questioning where I am and my place within these changes.

AGSIW: For what purposes did you choose to slow down the speed of the clip?

Ahaad: Alkhubaiti is an aggressive, quick, and powerful dance. I slowed it down because it goes back to the state that we’re in right now. These kinds of progressive changes are happening constantly around us and they’re transforming the community; to me it’s almost like I want things to slow down and focus on elements, such as how the communities are affected and how people around me are affected. I just want to feel things and be aware of the things that are happening.

AGSIW: The different artwork you created use multimedia as a vehicle to deliver art through social media platforms. How do these platforms inform your work and the Saudi sociocultural moment?

Ahaad: Social media made me reanalyze the space that I’m in and become more aware of what it means to be a Saudi living in this country and how there are so many different representations of who we are. I work on imagery that is generated from my country and society through what they put out there on social media. Most of the visuals that are on the Internet and go viral don’t really define anything because they cater to the Internet language with something dramatic in them. I understand that it’s not a representation of my country, but in my art, I want to create my own narrative of what I see around me.

AGSIW: Your artwork is humorous and reveals a fondness for kitsch. How would you explain this and what attracted you to this direction?

Ahaad: I use comedy as a vessel to address serious topics lightheartedly. It is more evident in terms of how my country is perceived globally and the kind of stereotypical views of danger or terrorism associated with it. I think adding a sense of comedy is very relevant to laugh about things and accept them. The kitsch part, I think it’s because of what I see. I see an excess [of random] images online, like advertisements, and all these kinds [of things] that we’re constantly being fed and I represent that in my work.

AGSIW: How did you and your collaborator, Michael Mogensen, conceive of “NIUN,” the artistic representation of NEOM, the futuristic city Saudi Arabia is planning to build on the Red Sea?

Clip from “NIUN”

Ahaad: Michael Mogensen and I worked together on this piece for a while and it was happening during the time when NEOM came out. There were all these commercials about this new world that is going to be built with robots living there. I wanted to see it and be there now. The artwork itself is a reflection of that. NIUN I and II are these hopeful characters that envision themselves in that world and live there.

AGSIW: Would you describe how time and the pace of change is integral to video and to your artwork?

Ahaad: I worked on both the “NIUN” and the falcon piece at the same time. In the falcon piece, I talked about how I wanted to express slowing down through the artwork and then in the “NIUN” piece it was like I got there. Both tell what I’m feeling right now. I’m excited. There’s this excitement and you feel it around you; everybody is excited and everybody wants to see the kind of future that is being talked about. In one piece I’m kind of skeptical and I’m like, “OK, hold on, let’s see how this affects us.” And then the other piece, I created characters that go to be a part of this future and go there and live in it. I’m very hopeful about the future and I think both of my pieces express that.

AGSIW: After having experimented with envisioning Saudi future, how would you describe it?

Ahaad: In NEOM, I saw sci-fi with objects floating around. But much of what existed in “NIUN,” the space we created, was desert and humans. There weren’t any robots; there weren’t any sci-fi things floating or cars flying. I think what we created in “NIUN” is very far from the reality of things. I do see robots walking around with humans in our future.

I envisioned NEOM being very sci-fi with things flying and robots co-existing with humans, but much of what existed in NIUN, the space we created, was very Stone Age.

To view more of Ahaad’s work visit her website and Instagram page.

Mai Al-Farhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.