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Jeddah ( جدّة Jidda in arabic) is the second largest city of Saudi Arabia, with over 3 million inhabitants. Situated on the Red Sea at about 90 km from Mecca, Jeddah is since ancient times the port of entry of Hajj-goers who arrive by sea and air (Mecca has no international airport). The city therefore is more open than other Saudi cities. It has a mixed population with a relatively cosmopolitan outlook and a trading background. Many inhabitants of Jeddah have their ancestral roots in other parts of Western Saudi Arabia, making Jeddah the informal capital of the Hejaz.
Jeddah stretches northward and inland from the old town, called al Balad. As other cities of Saudi Arabia it has developed too fast over the past 50 years to allow for proper planning and its layout seems a bit haphazard. Currently a planned city is being built 120 kilometers to the North of central Jeddah, King Abdullah Economic City (or KAEC). If and when completed, KAEC will take over many of the industrial, commercial and portuary functions that Jeddah is ill-equipped to deal with.
Compared to Riyadh Jeddah is markedly more liberal; for example shisha-smoking is allowed and one will encounter less niqabs, and visitors will be struck by the large sculptures adorning the city’s roundabouts and its seaside road, the corniche. Located across the sea from Sudan, Jeddah has a bit of the African laid-back feeling to it.
In terms of cultural heritage the city has suffered from its precipitous unplanned growth. However some of the houses in the old town have been restored and preserved by their owners, and al Balad still is marked by the wooden lattices (mashrabiyya’s) that used to provide fresh air and allow the inhabitants (women) of the houses to observe and interact with the street without being seen.
Contemporary Art Scene
Jeddah is the main contemporary art hub in Saudi Arabia, and there are many artists and quite a few private galleries in this city. But the art life is completely unstructured. Many small groups of artists seem to coexist, each associated with particular venues or, more pertinently, websites and YouTube channels. There seems to be a lack of mechanisms to establish cross-relations, and more platforms for exchanging ‘what’s on’ information between groups are needed. The Saudi Art Guide is an attempt to cater to this need; other initiatives are rapidly unfolding.
As elsewhere, most galleries cater to interior decoration needs. The better galleries specialize in Arab modernist painting – some masters of the genre are Saudi. For amateurs of this genre Atelier Jeddah, a veteran gallery, is a good starting place. For art with a more international appeal the professionally run Athr Gallery – in 2012 the only of its kind in the kingdom – is the place to be. Athr also organizes yearly shows of ‘Young Saudi Artists’. Recently however the Jeddah art scene is stirring, on YouTube especially, but also through initiatives like Arabian Wings. Much of Jeddah’s art life takes place behind closed doors, and it is best to tag along with artists or patrons to discover it.
In the absence of any kind of government-funded art infrastructure, private patronage plays a major role in developing Jeddah’s contemporary art scene. Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives, funded by the Jameel group (who have the exclusive franchise on importing Toyota to the KSA) is the most important patron of Saudi arts; besides supporting some local organizations, initiatives and awards, it is the principal sponsor of Edge of Arabia. ALJCI has also partnered with the V&A museum in London to fund the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art and the biannual Jameel Prize for Contemporary Art. The Mansouria foundation, established by Her Royal Highness Princess Jawaher, is indicative of the support to arts by the Saudi royal family. It owns a studio in the Cité des Arts in Paris. The Mansouria’s previous director, Mona Khazindar, is now director of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Another interesting initiative is the BASMOCA virtual museum of contemporary art set up in Second Life by patron Basma Al Sulaiman.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
There are many promising young artists in Jeddah, and there is sufficient wealth among patrons and art lovers to create a truly interesting scene in Jeddah. The January 2012 exhibition of Edge of Arabia in a makeshift location along the Corniche was a promising and well-attended event, which many hoped would be seminal. Typically, until the last moment there were uncertainties as to whether the event could take place, and some works never made it through customs. Here lies one of the challenges facing any exchange venture: the lack of government policies to support arts means that one has to deal with many layers of red tape, and with officials concerned that contemporary art is somehow offensive.
Taking into account these sensitivities and logistical challenges, there is so much room for artistic exchange that it is hard to determine where to start. Art education, workshops and residencies immediately spring to mind but many other forms of artistic exchange can be envisioned. It is essential to work with the right partners to make things happen. Arabian Wings offers the first and so far only artist-in-residence program in Saudi Arabia. Athr Gallery is a good first point of call for almost any other art-related business, although by no means the only one. For entry points contact any of the people mentioned in these pages.
There is no point in trying to discover the Jeddah art scene by oneself. To start with, one needs a good invitation by a reknown institution or organization to obtain a visa. The only way to navigate the art life in this city is with its protagonists.
For visa requirements, see under Riyadh.
Written by: RobertK