JEDDAH: After several years in the making, the Jeddah Islamic Arts Biennale is offering visitors from across the Kingdom and around the world “eye-opening” access to Islamic art.
The event is being held under the theme Awal Beit, or “First House,” in the Aga Khan Award-winning 1983 Western Pilgrimage Building, which began receiving guests on 23 January.
The 118,000 square meter space houses five galleries, two pavilions, one large canopy and 280 antiques, as well as more than 50 new works of art from across the Islamic world.
Rakan Al-Tawq, Vice President of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, and General Supervisor of Cultural Affairs and International Relations at the Ministry of Culture, praised the successful launch of the event.
Dressed in a crisp white gown and authentic smile, Hoop was visibly impressed by how the event came together.
“We have been very excited about this project for a few years, since 2019. It has also been a passion project for me personally. And we have a great group of people coming together for this project – a small but strong team,” he told Arab News.
El Touq stressed the need for non-commercial experiences in which hands are put on deck to elevate concepts and cultures in Islamic art.
He added that the combination of never-before-seen and priceless artifacts alongside newly commissioned contemporary pieces within the space was like building a jigsaw puzzle from scratch.
Rakan Al Tawq, Vice President of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, said: • Bringing together precious, never-before-seen artifacts, alongside newly commissioned contemporary pieces within the space, was like building a jigsaw puzzle from scratch.
• The Biennale of Islamic Arts also aims to serve as a global reframing of Islamic art as a discipline, with the diversity of the curators of the Biennial of Islamic Arts a notable achievement.
The collar said that creating a cohesive and visually stunning space in which different fields and sensibilities are represented was a major accomplishment. He added that securing the iconic site for the launch of the world’s first Islamic Biennale was also important to him and the team.
Al-Touq said the cooperation and support of the Saudi leadership, including Prince Badr Al Saud, Minister of Culture and Governor of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula Governorate, had ensured the success of the mega project.
The vice president’s praise went beyond the glamorous opening ceremony, which was attended by many members of the royal family and the public.
He was proud of the fact that half of the artists participating in the event are Saudis.
In 2019, we were planning for 2023 and the meeting point to do something frankly related to the identity of the Ministry of Culture and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in a format that hadn’t been done before.
“Thinking of a biennial format for Islamic art, that could bring together ancient and present history, and hopefully inspire future art productions, felt like the right thing to do.
We were really touched and feel like students, watching with wide eyes and learning, just taking in all of it. It would be amazing to bring all of that back into our classrooms.
Dr. Stephenie MulderProfessor of Islamic Art at the University of Austin, USA
“The team and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation started looking at options for locations and how we ended up here at the Hajj station is also important,” said Al-Tawq.
“We are eager for people to join the dialogue and experience the sense of community that faith can evoke through art,” said Aya Al Bakri, CEO of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, Al Touq’s assistant in launching the event.
The Biennale of Islamic Arts also aims to be a global reframing of Islamic art as a discipline, with the diversity of the curators of the Biennale of Islamic Arts a notable achievement.
Jennifer Pruitt, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, traveled from the United States to the Kingdom to visit the Biennale with her friend Dr. Stephenie Mulder, Professor of Islamic Art at the University of Austin, in the United States.
Although immersed in the Middle East through their work, they have very few expectations, but they were cautiously optimistic about their first visit to the Kingdom.
Before enjoying the works on display at the Biennale of Islamic Arts, they spent a whirlwind eight hours in Medina and managed to explore Al-Ula before arriving in Jeddah.
“It was a really exciting and wonderful experience. My boyfriend and I are here together and we’re both masters of Islamic arts. We’ve been reading about this space — we’ve been reading about Saudi Arabia,” Pruitt said.
“I knew the people were going to be friendly and approachable, which actually everyone was. We would comment on the fact that unlike any trip we’ve been on, we literally didn’t encounter anyone who was rude or disruptive.
“Really, everyone was exceptionally warm and candid,” she told Arab News.
She added, “We’ve been to a lot of Islamic art shows and I think we all…we both agree that this is kind of a really high category of quality, ambition and execution.”
The couple’s trip to Medina was amazing – something they were excited to experience first before venturing into the Biennale.
“It was really moving to see people kind of flock to this holy spot in Medina. Mulder told Arab News.
“What we teach in our classes, which is that the power of Islam is that all these people come together in this way… that the power is not in the monuments or in the architecture, but in these places where people pray… and I think that was really embodied in seeing all these people From all over the world they flock to Medina.
Due to previous periods of restrictions, Saudi Arabia has been absent from the center of the Islamic art world for a long time.
But the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 and the introduction of tourist visas and academic trips sought to change that.
“For me, as Jennifer, I just wanted to come here and be a student, learn and observe,” Mulder said.
“We have this sense of being here in the moment… of a people who are really discovering and being proud of and being able to collectively build their national narrative.
“And you have the liberty to do so—perhaps for the first time very frankly and with a kind of joy.”
Both professors said the enriching experience encouraged them to change the way they taught when they returned to the United States.
Although a picture is worth a thousand words, the pair said ARIA images are often “sterile,” failing to encapsulate the feeling of experiencing art in person.
They said the feeling of standing under a monument while the call to prayer resonated could not be replicated through the archives.
The two professors are also keen to work and collaborate with Saudi archaeologists.
“We were really touched and we feel like students, wide-eyed watching and learning, absorbing all of that. It would be amazing to bring all of that back into our classrooms,” Mulder said.
“I’ll study differently now; it’s kind of a filter for a few days. I’d tell Jennifer, and she even had pictures of things we didn’t know before.”
“We’re both architectural historians—it’s really important to have a sense of space and how people move through it.”
The biennial is free to all visitors. It also hosts 117 educational workshops and more than 25 panel discussions.
The public programming schedule, including talks and shows, is updated in real time.
The Islamic Arts Biennale, which opened to the public on January 23, will remain open until April 23.
Tickets can be booked through the official website of the Diriyah Biennial and through social media channels.
The space is open for visitors to tour the grounds and exhibits between 11am and 11pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and Thursdays, and between 2pm and 11pm on Fridays.