Art Appreciation Is A Foundation Of Any Culture

27 July 2016

By Tariq A. Al-Maeena

The creation of a commission for entertainment and culture as part of Saudi Vision 2030 is a great boon for art and culture lovers in the Kingdom. When one describes art on a national level, it generally refers to the aesthetics branch of national identity.

Regionally, some cities have established a strong base in the appreciation of all forms of art, among them the cities of Dubai and Doha. Dubai is remarkable in the sense that by itself, it is a city and a society that is a phenomenal work of art. Moreover, with its remarkable array of structures and statues, the city has forged itself into a center for international film festivals, book fairs, concerts and art shows.

Here in Saudi Arabia, with a common language and religion, one would have expected an appreciation of art and culture given the magnitude of the nation's natural resource of oil. In the land that witnessed the birth of Islam, such creativity has been missing for decades and it is only within the last decade or so that there have been some strides to publicly display and appreciate the traditional arts. To understand the reasons, one must take a step back in time.

The oil boom years in the mid-70s of the last century also witnessed the emergence of a train of thought within the Saudi education establishment that wanted nothing to do with art, music or drama as in their opinion it did not conform to the teachings of Islam and was the ''frivolous pastime of the devil''. Such ideology ensured that subjects were confined to a rigorous diet of religious or science subjects. With the oil boom in full swing, there was virtually no encouragement of any form of art in schools, be it in the field of painting or music or dance for almost three decades.

During the 80s, the mayor of Jeddah, the country's largest cosmopolitan city, introduced various sculptures around the major thoroughfares. There was much alarm and protests from conservative elements who viewed these pieces of art as sacrilege and forced the removal of some of them as they depicted living things. In such a climate, those who indulged in any form of art were not inclined to share their talents publicly.

Progressive parents who wanted more in the school curriculum could barely raise a protest. Even the concept of physical education for girls in schools was strongly rejected. When King Abdullah ordered the education ministry to do a comprehensive review of the curriculum and introduce modern-day teaching methods and subjects, it suddenly seemed that the dam had burst, and artists who previously had screened their works privately began holding public showings in emerging art galleries.

From paintings to poetry, from photography to music, the Saudi art scene slowly began to arise. Book fairs that were previously subjected to assault by extremists began to take place without incidents. Saudis such as Haifa Al-Mansour gained international recognition. Haifa wrote and directed the film ''Wadjda'' which premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and was well received by the global cinematic family. Another Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah wrote and directed a 44-minute film called Mariam.

Even the royal family was not immune from the art bug. Princess Reem Al-Faisal, the granddaughter of King Faisal and whose passion was photography and whose works were displayed in many countries around the world, felt relaxed enough to publicly introduce her photographs locally. Galleries, film studios and music appreciation courses began sprouting up for those on whom the shackles had been broken. Fatmah Omran, a Saudi artist, recently showcased her paintings at a studio among international paintings and sculptures.

Other art enthusiasts have demonstrated their talents in annual contests for painting, murals, poetry, drama and the like. Last summer, an art fair with the participation of 14 galleries from across the Middle East was held in Jeddah for a week to showcase local and regional talent.

While there is no denying that cities in Saudi Arabia are far behind their counterparts such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there is an effort in the right direction to forge ahead in the promotion of the aesthetics of society. There are hopes that Vision 2030 will do just that.

The author can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena


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