A Biennale for Islamic Arts

The curatorial team for the Islamic Arts Biennale. Left to right: Sumayya Vally, Julian Raby, Saad Alrashid, Omniya Abdel Barr

The inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale, scheduled for Jeddah from 23 January to 23 April 2023, claims to be “the world’s most significant showcase of contemporary and historic works of Islamic art from across the globe”, celebrating Islamic art and culture while exploring “spirituality in the aesthetic realm”.

It’s organised by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, set up in 2020 by the recently formed Saudi Ministry of Culture and directed to hold a biennale every year – alternating between the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale and the Islamic Arts Biennale – and given “a pivotal role in nurturing creative expression and instilling an appreciation for culture, the arts, and their transformative power”.

“Cultural and artistic exchange are essential in this period of unprecedented growth and development in the creative community in Saudi Arabia,” said Saudi minister of culture Badr bin Farhan Al Saud.

It’s clearly all part of the repositioning of Saudi Arabia, away from an introverted, introspective past and towards an a more outward looking policy clearly intended to establish the country and its rulers as visible and effective players on the world stage. So we have seen massive investment in tourism, diversification, urban development, and sporting and cultural events – the Saudi Design Festival, Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium, Winter at Tantora festival (runs 22 December to 21 January in AlUla, which itself is well worth a visit), the Noor Riyadh Festival of Light and Art in November, Misk Art Week, Hayy Jameel …

The new directions in foreign policy have resulted in more openness to international ideas, collaborations and curatorial statements. The inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale was curated by Beijing-based Philip Tinari, there was a notable emphasis on women (including Marwah AlMugait’s This Sea is Mine, with a dozen female dancers performing live and unveiled), and the 64 artworks on show — nearly half which were new commissions – included contributions from the likes of William Kentridge, Koki Tanaka and Richard Long alongside 27 Saudis and 13 Chinese.

True, China has become Saudi Arabia’s main partner on the international stage; and as Stephanie Bailey wrote in her review for Ocula, “a soft power logic infuses the Diriyah Biennale”. Its title, ‘Feeling the Stones, was coined in the 1980s by a leader of the Chinese Communist Part (“crossing the river by feeling the stones”) in reference to China building up to be an economic powerhouse.

Tinari saw the geographical equivalence – China changing in the 80s and 90s, Saudi in the early part of the 21st century – and said the phrase “has resonances with where things are in Saudi today in the aftermath of massive changes and big dreams on the horizon”.

Indeed, you could argue that one aspect of the massive changes in both countries has been an increased willingness on the part of their citizens to test the limits of artistic and political expression. Or perhaps to find accommodations: Tinari’s view is that “the question is less what is censorship and more what is respect for cultural mores in a context that’s not your own”.

Thematic response

By common consent the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale was a major success at the artistic level, with no obvious signs of compromise beyond the unremarkable absence of obvious taboos. The Islamic Arts Biennale will surely test fewer boundaries, though it is always interesting to see how contemporary artists draw on the rich traditions of Islamic culture.

Or as Farida Alhusseini, Islamic Arts Biennale director, said: “By bridging craftsmanship and academia with continuing practices of artistry and creativity we hope that this edition, and future editions to come, will create space for new perspectives to be voiced and unexpected connections to inspire and generate meaning”.

The Islamic Arts Biennale will run for four months in a reworked Western Hajj Terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport (below – originally designed by SOM back in 1981, at the time the world’s largest cable-stayed, fabric-roofed structure, and the recipient of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture). The event was originally set to take place in Riyadh, which is where the Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale happens; the move to Jeddah conveniently reflects the city’s more substantial cultural heritage, which will “complement the biennale’s objective to interlink past, present and future” say the organisers. Jeddah has been the centre of a thriving art scene for some time, albeit mostly off the official-sponsorship radar until recently.

The terminal building is a huge, airy space, originally designed to cope with the Hajj influx – a design requirement which is obviously very pertinent to the idea of an Islamic event – and has around 70,000m2 of indoor exhibition space (plus a theatre, workshops and classrooms, a mosque, and of course the obligatory retail and dining options). There will also be pavilions and installations outdoors, under the canopy.

Overall the Biennale has the theme of Awwal Bayt (First House), referring to the reverence and symbolic unity that Muslims worldwide get from the Ka’ba in Makkah, and suggesting perhaps a broader sense of belonging and security. “It reflects on the construction of ‘home’ through our spiritual and cultural rituals in Islam; acts which both unite us and celebrate our diversity and cultural hybridity

“As curators, we are excited by the opportunity to create a temporary home, an entirely new physical setting in this context of the Muslim pilgrim’s journey, in which to invite artists and audiences to reflect on ritual, the sacred, the personal and the communal.”

The quote is from the star South African architect Sumayya Vally, who founded architectural studio Counterspace, designed the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion in London, and at the start of the year was named one of Time magazine’s 100 leaders of the future. She will curate the Biennale alongside architect Omniya Abdel Barr, archaeologist Saad Alrashid, and Julian Raby, director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.

“The artists selected have been chosen for their methods of practice – grounded in the embodied, the aural, collectivity, and the spiritual,” said Vally. Julian Raby was a bit more specific: “We have placed emphasis on allusive perceptions, not literal descriptions. This approach has been made possible because the Biennale provides an unparalleled platform for mingling historical objects and contemporary artistic commissions.

“This is an exhibition less on the manifold arts of Islam and more on the art of Islam – the art of being a Muslim.”

And Omniya Abdel Barr said the curatorial direction does not underplay the historical content. “We tried to understand the rituals of belonging to Makkah and Madinah and illustrate the diversities in Muslim cultures and exchanged experiences. Through a selection of historical artefacts against a contemporary dialogue, mutual meaning and the richness of the material cultures came to light.”

Those artefacts include items from the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and in the Masjid al-Haram in Makkah among a dozen public and private institutions. Many of these pieces have never been publicly displayed.

Another new initiative – AlMadar (The Orbit) – will also be launched as a satellite exhibition to the Islamic Arts Biennale. It’s apparently a dedicated gallery space where institutions from across the world have been invited to exhibit “the tangible and intangible traditions of Arts and Culture from the Islamic World whilst celebrating the exchange of ideas”. Fortunately more detail than this will be published in due course.

Taking part

The preliminary list of 44 participating artists (more to follow) includes some interesting entries.

Among established names are the always intriguing Lubna Chowdhary, who subverts the traditional uses of her chosen medium – clay – to address issues of urbanisation and material culture; Huda Lutfi, known for multimedia works that deploy female archetypes to comment on history, culture and society in the Arab world; and the exuberant Russian artist Taus Makhacheva, whose performance and video works often concern the uncertain survival of cultural heritage when cultures bump up against each other.

We’re looking forward to the latest from Ayman Zedani, who works with videos, installations and immersive environments to consider the future of the Gulf and whose recent projects include the Valley of the Desert Keepers for Desert X Alula (2022, above) and Between Desert Seas for the 2021 Diriyah Biennale.

Also on our must-see list are Iran-born NY-based Shahpour Pouyan, whose recent projects are influenced by science, archeology, and “the poetry of architectural forms that bridge past and present”; Wael Shawky, whose work tackles notions of national, religious and artistic identity through film, performance and storytelling; and of course Ahmed Mater, qualified doctor, cofounder of the massively influential independent arts initiative Edge of Arabia in Jeddah, and multifaceted artist – photography, calligraphy, painting, installation, video – whose work explores the past and present of Islamic culture, especially transformation and consumerism in the region.

The Saudi contingent includes some intriguing photographers, among them Reem Al Faisal, fine art photographer and gallery owner, and Adel Al-Quraishihi who was responsible for the influential show Tribe: Contemporary Photography from the Arab World a couple of years ago. There’s also Moath Alofi, whose practice tries to build bridges of communication between Saudi Arabia’s past and present; modern calligraphy from Nasser Alsalem and Abdelrahman Elshahed (which should make for instructive comparisons with another calligrapher in the group, the Kuwaiti artist and designer Farah Behbehani); and Sarah Brahim, who uses her background in professional dance to create works in film, textile, photography and performance that feature “the body as material, medium and expression”.

There are a good number of architectural practices, which augers well for establishing links to the most physical aspects of historic Islam. Among them: the multidisciplinary architecture studio Bricklab from Jeddah, whose partners have exhibited widely; Noura Al Sayeh, the Palestinian architect who has settled in Bahrain and indeed is the country’s Head of Architectural Affairs; Riyadh-based syn architects (Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi), a practice which focuses on ecologically sensitive architectural design; and the Kuwaiti/Bahraini Civil Architecture, founded by Hamed Bukhamseen and Ali Karimi to offer an alternate future for the Middle East.


An arts biennial – or ‘biennale’, if the organisers wish to trade on the styling of the biggest and best-known – is conventionally an international large-scale showcase of art that takes place every two years, usually a non-commercial enterprises that centres around a stated curatorial theme.

The Islamic Arts Biennale certainly fits that bald description. Arguably arts biennials should go further, actively promoting diversity, freedom and experimentation, exercising critical thought, and maybe producing alternative realities – “an integration of thinking and doing, reflection and action” as one biennial curator put it a while ago (disclaimer: magpie kept the quote but not the name of the author. Apologies).

It’s those principles by which the Islamic Arts Biennale should probably be judged. Can alternative realities be proffered against the background of what is still a notably conservative society and within the culture and traditions of Islam?

“The first Islamic Arts Biennale will be a pioneering event” said the Diriyah Biennale Foundation’s CEO, Aya Al-Bakree, Indeed, it will be a fascinating exercise, and the early signs are definitely encouraging.

The Islamic Arts Biennale runs from 23 January to 23 April 2023. At the time of writing it doesn’t have a website, though the organising Diriyah Biennale Foundation’s is here; there’s a bit more information on Twitter and Instagram.

Participating artists

  • Abdelrahman Elshahed
  • Adel Al Quraishi
  • Ahmed Mater
  • Alia Farid
  • Ayman Yossri-Daydban
  • Ayman Zedani
  • Basmah Felemban
  • Beya Othmani
  • Bricklab
  • Civil Architecture
  • DAL – Digital Arts Lab
  • Dima Srouji
  • Farah Behbahani
  • Hamedine Kane
  • Haroon Gunn-Salie
  • Haroon Mirza
  • Huda Lutfi
  • Idris Khan
  • Igshaan Adams
  • Iheb Guermazi
  • James Webb
  • Joseph Namy
  • Kamruzamman Shadin
  • Leen Ajlan
  • Lubna Chowdhary
  • M’barek Bouhchichi
  • Moataz Nasr
  • Moath Alofi
  • Nasser Alsalem
  • Nora Alissa
  • Noura Al Sayeh
  • Reem Al Faisal
  • Rund Alarabi
  • Sarah Alabdali
  • Sarah Brahim
  • Shahpour Pouyan
  • Studio Bound
  • Sultan Bin Fahad
  • syn architects
  • Taus Makhacheva
  • Wael Shawky
  • Yasmeen Lari
  • Yazid Oulab
  • Ziad Jamaleddine

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