Diriyah Biennale, Between the Lines
Hong Kong-based journalist Stephanie Bailey visits Saudi Arabia’s first contemporary art biennial, helmed by a high-powered curator borrowed from Beijing. As artists negotiate cultural change, connections between the Chinese and Saudi scenes, past and present, come into view.
Once I heard that Philip Tinari was curating Saudi Arabia’s first contemporary art biennial, I had to go. This was too perfect a match. Philadelphia-born Tinari was the ideal person to lead the soft-power vehicle of a government-supported biennial in a hard-power state. A central figure of China’s contemporary art scene, he’s become quite the diplomat since his appointment in 2011 as director (and later chief executive) of one of China’s most important contemporary art institutions, UCCA. This is someone who understands what it means to walk the line that culture traces between a political context and its affordances for artistic expression, particularly in China, where that line is always moving depending on time and place – as one curator there pointed out, artworks censored in one city could well pass in another.
This fluidity seems to resonate in the Saudi scene, according to some commentary I got from those in the know. (The uncertainty isn’t limited to examples of legal inconsistency, like the fact that women who fought for the now-existing right to drive remain in jail.) By some estimations, Jeddah is where a grassroots art community has been pushing envelopes for years, while Riyadh is the new, flashy, government-sponsored institutionalised kid on the block; and contrary to what some might expect when it comes to the context of the Gulf more broadly, a few artists told me they’ve experienced more censorship in Dubai than Riyadh, with pressure sometimes coming from western PR firms rather than Emirati authorities.
These fluctuations recalled comments I’ve heard by some gallerists in Asia, who say Hong Kong remains more free from censorship than Singapore, even with the National Security Law hanging over everyone’s heads, my own included. Questions coalescing around freedom of expression have long reverberated around these contexts, and the skill of skirting elephants in rooms – while confronting them, if indirectly – is a creative endeavour unto itself; something that is often lost on spectators unfamiliar with such conditions, who expect to see, if not demand, a narrow conception of vocally “political art”. Hence, my curiosity to see the show.
A couple of journalists in the region actually told me they were glad that I came and gave the Saudi scene a chance rather than writing it out of the discourse – which many arts journalists are apparently all too hurried to do, purely because of the geopolitical conditions over which most people involved with the exhibition ultimately have little control. Of course, I’d thought about it. What would my presence as a member of the international art press, visiting an exhibition in the KSA implicated in the politics of state-sanctioned art-washing, mean? One Saudi artist scoffed when I brought up the issue: she said things should not be dismissed so easily, especially by those who have never come to see the context for themselves. Honestly, fair enough.
Besides, as an American artist in the show pointed out, they knew of no contemporary art professional that boycotted the United States during the Trump era, or any other time in the nation’s history of subjugation and imperialist violence. Just because an exhibition is itself instrumentalising doesn’t mean an artist within it is merely an instrument and is not worth knowing, let alone worthy of art-critical evaluation or engagement. Once you’re on the ground, that kind of dismissal doesn’t feel so tenable anyway, because it reduces people’s lives to the geopolitics of their state – which is not to excuse those geopolitics, either. I think that’s the realisation one international gallerist arrived at by the time we crossed paths at the show. “It’s completely different to what I expected!” – they actually had stars in their eyes – “All I ever knew was what I’ve seen on the news!” Granted, there’s a lot of it.
To wonder if your expression is being monitored – and to never be certain about how far you can go until you find out – is a tense position. As tense as the position a European journalist must have put a princess into on the first day of my visit to the Diriyah Biennale. It was during a tour of At-Turaif, the UNESCO world heritage site billed as “the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, which is being transformed – as per the quintessential Brooklynite CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, Jerry Inzerillo – into a self-described Acropolis. We had just been introduced to Al-Nourah Pillars (2021), a site-specific installation of seven earthen columns by Hmoud Al Attawi commemorating the contributions of Saudi women in the kingdom’s history by honouring seven members of the Saudi royal family. Seizing the opportunity, said journalist tried to pry out a soundbite from her about women’s contemporary position in the Kingdom. Crickets.
It’s hard to tell what silence means sometimes. It doesn’t necessarily mean submission, nor does it signal outright refusal. Most of the time, it just reflects the reality when your life is bound by a different set of rules — whether cultural or political – than those in a Western liberal democracy. Maybe the effort to deal with parachuters projecting their geopolitical macro-narratives, rather than offering their allyship through a nuanced understanding of context, is exhausting – there are ways of entering into such discussions sensitively, after all, especially when taking into account the real liabilities that Western observers often ignore when projecting their expectations on native informants for the sake of a good story. Compare the self-satisfied smile of a European man who found his opportunity to hit on a liberal hot topic and the poise of a woman put on the spot while introducing a cultural site that is 100% connected to the ambitions of the notorious MBS. Like, read the room, I guess?
But rooms change. Following the tour of At-Turaif, we were herded to the studio of artist Ahmed Mater, located in the JAX district of Diriyah, a fully repurposed industrial site on the edge of Riyadh that the Diriyah Biennale and its foundation call home. One artist from the Gulf, who’s visited Saudi Arabia before, couldn’t believe their eyes. “Something’s happening here”, she said, remembering a time not so long ago when women couldn’t live alone without permission, or be seen in public without being fully covered. Now, things are changing – as one Saudi woman in her early twenties made clear during the Biennale’s opening reception, when she came bounding up to her artist friend, with whom I’d ended up in a random huddle, hair free and gently flouting the country’s lax-er but still conservative dress code. “I feel so lucky to be a woman in Saudi Arabia right now!” she said, unprompted, beaming.
You can really take for granted how significant the reforms of recent years have been for women here, especially – as I heard a few people point out – if you compare things to how they were before. Highlighting this at the Biennale was Tree of Guardians, which Manal Al Dowayan created through a series of workshops with Saudi women in 2014. In a closed room, walls are covered in drawings of family trees mapping generations of women – a reaction to the erasure baked into a common custom where lineage is normally tracked only through men’s lives. Like a counterweight to the compression of all Saudi women into seven exemplary columns at At-Turaif, Tree of Guardians is animated by the demand for total gender equality that has long driven Al Dowayan’s work: a gesture she describes as a projection of a future to come.
Perhaps it is this long view that foreign critics lack when they expect to see a reflection of their own liberal values echoed back to them at events like this, or expect those on the ground to cross extant political lines, at the expense of their safety, in the interest of confirming existing biases. Consider the time that has lapsed since Al Dowayan created the installation Suspended Together in 2011. Two hundred porcelain doves were printed with a permission document issued by a male guardian, of the kind that was required for all Saudi woman to travel until 2019, when a new law passed to allow women over 21 to move about on their own accord. In Al Dowayan’s more recent work The Emerging (2021), a reflection of where things stand comes through in the form of a woman’s bent leg rendered in black ceramic many times over: a tantalising tease of an emergence in process.
In general, a sense of gratitude infused the atmosphere throughout the Diriyah Biennale trip, actually, though the fact that I was on a press junket means salt ought to be pinched. Described as a hospitality visionary, Inzerillo, who once cameoed in the movie Casino Royale, said he was thrilled to welcome us at At-Turaif – it was so important for people to come and see this land for themselves, he said. Then he pointed to the walls of Salwa Palace, where a “family photo” of G20 state leaders was projected as part of a mostly virtual summit presided over by the Kingdom in 2021. Had it not been for the virus, that summit would have included a cultural night there: an expression of Saudi Arabia’s vested interest in culture as a vehicle for social and economic development, the same driving force behind the Diriyah Biennale.
“Feeling the stones” is all about staying close to the ground; about understanding that change is a material experience that does not happen overnight, and is rarely straightforward.
This is where Tinari’s title for the Biennale exhibition really resonates. Feeling the Stones comes from the phrase “Crossing the river by feeling the stones”. That slogan defined the early decades of China’s economic miracle, which commenced in the late 1970s when an official period of liberalisation policy, Opening and Reform, was introduced to what was then a closed economy, triggering massive social and economic change. Notably, this coincided with the entry of a generation of Chinese artists onto a stage lauded as “global”. That history finds echoes in Saudi Arabia’s modernising Vision 2030 programme, which seeks to develop and diversify the economy beyond oil, and has already ushered unprecedented transformation in a country undergoing the process of, well, opening up and reforming. Rooting this relational historiography to the personal in Feeling the Stones, as if to underline that these points of connection go beyond a state-sponsored diplomatic narrative, was a two-channel video installation by Lei Lei and Chai Mi, '1993-1994' (2021), which centres around home videos taken by Chai Mi’s father during his time working in the UAE in the 1990s.
I was actually told by someone in the know that there had been talks about the Diriyah Biennale launching in tandem with an official Saudi-China cultural year, which is apparently how Tinari came on board. It’s a partnership that’s in keeping with China’s foreign policy, whether in terms of non-interference in the political affairs of other nation states – a dig at the Euro-American world’s abysmal track record that doesn’t necessarily live up to its moral high ground – or rhetoric invoking 20th century revolutionary non-alignment politics and ancient relationships that bypass the western narrative altogether. As demonstrated by Xi Jinping’s 2016 speech at the Arab League HQ in Cairo, one stop in an extraordinary Middle East tour that saw him visit the rival capitals of Tehran and Riyadh just after the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital was stormed by protestors demonstrating against the KSA’s execution of a revered Shiite cleric: “Coming to the Arab world, my colleagues and I all feel a sense of affinity,” Xi said. “In their exchanges across time and space, the Chinese and Arab peoples have been sincere with each other, forging friendship along the ancient Silk Road [and] sharing weal and woe in the fight for national independence ….”
But as China learned decades ago, the independence that Xi alluded to hinges on economic power – the inevitable engagement of which with the liberal global market system has been shown to instigate unpredictable social change, such as the demands for greater freedom that led to the state-suppressed popular uprising in China in 1989. Perhaps Vision 2030 has taken those histories into account. Or perhaps Tinari understood the assignment well enough to offer some coded advice at the Diriyah Biennale, especially when thinking about the prominent placement of diagrammatic structures from the “Corresponding Non-correspondence” series (2010 – 2019) by Chinese artist Wang Luyan, in a section Tinari described as the curatorial “brain”. Human bodies rendered in metallic or wooden stick form map out tautological dynamics: equations such as two steel figures poised to walk in a way that makes their direction ambiguous, with titles like Two People Who Walk Along the Right/Left Side While Walking Towards/Away from Each Other (2011).
Wang founded the New Measurement Group in 1988 with Chen Shaoping and Gu Dexin, a conceptualist endeavour that engaged in abstraction by articulating a set of rules through which the group collectively distilled observations into graphs and diagrams. Before that, Wang was a member of the avant-garde Stars group, who protested the Chinese state’s monopoly on art in 1979 by hanging their artworks on the gates of the National Art Museum in Beijing. That event heralded the rise of the Chinese New Wave, which reached its apex when the “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition opened in February 1989 at the National Art Museum, with artists like Huang Yongping and Zhang Peili, only to be followed by the Tian’anmen square protests in June. As Carol Yinghua Lu and Liu Ding write, The New Measurement Group became part “of an emerging conceptual art movement in China in the post-Tian’anmen era” – because “Instead of running away, as many of their disillusioned peers and colleagues did after 1989, they stayed put.” It’s an important point to make: not everyone gets to leave, nor does everyone want to.
With that in mind, “Feeling the stones” is all about staying close to the ground; about understanding that change is a material experience that does not happen overnight, and is rarely straightforward. In China, Tinari explains, it “referred to a kind of progress that was incremental and experimental; a step at a time.” The title functions like a disclaimer that worked for ministerial talking heads at the Biennale as much as it did for everyone else: a plea for patience and perspective directed as much to critics inside the country as to those outside. These critiques come from all sides: there are those who understandably feel like issues of freedom and equality are not progressing fast enough; while others are uncomfortable with (or even enraged by) advances already made – reform is a challenge to entrenched cultural norms, after all. Then there are the ones who are quietly doing what they can with what they’ve got – operating just under the radar, biding their time, and nudging hard lines to see how far they can stretch.
STEPHANIE BAILEY is a writer and editor from Hong Kong.
See more photos from the Biennale here.