The British government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi state intended to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. Nadine Dorries, Britain’s Culture Secretary, attended the signing ceremony at the Diriyah Biennale in the Jax neighborhood on the outskirts of Riyadh.
Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al-Saud, Minister of Culture and Governor of the Royal Commission for AlUla, also signed the memorandum in the context of the installation Birth of a place (2021) by Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi, centerpiece of the thematic space entitled Experimental conservation. The work “serves as an elegy to the city’s ancestral foundations [Diriyah]which is now a hub of gentrification,” says a wall text.
A statement from the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport reads: “[Dorries] will be in the region to strengthen ties in sports, tourism and the arts and is expected to sign memorandums of understanding to increase cooperation with Saudi counterparts in sports and culture. This includes focusing on collaborations in the film, museum and heritage sectors as well as sustainable tourism, the department adds. The Saudi culture ministry declined to comment further on the proposed partnership.
The rapprochement comes as Saudi Arabia embarks on a soft power dynamic with an avalanche of events such as the Tuwaiq sculpture commissions for public art in Riyadh, the Jeddah edition of the traveling Biennale Sur and the second edition of Desert X Al Ula, which launches this week (February 11-March 30).
But the UK-Saudi agreement could raise eyebrows among some British arts professionals who are worried about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. An unnamed British conservative says she is, for example, alarmed by the country’s stance on LGBTQ rights. According to its 2020 report, Amnesty says “homosexuality remains prohibited in Saudi Arabia, punishable by flogging and imprisonment”.
Saudi Arabia invests in local biennials
Sixty-four artists are participating in the Diriyah Biennale (until March 11) with 27 Saudi practitioners including Daniah Al Saleh and Marwah AlMugait. The biennale was initiated by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and is organized by the new Diriyah Biennale Foundation. Another new initiative, the Diriyah Biennial of Islamic Arts, is planned for this year (the biennials will take place alternately).
Highlights include Maha Malluh food for thought, world map installation (2021) commissioned by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, which consists of 3,840 cassettes dating from the 1980s that broadcast religious readings and Islamic texts. The mass of strips represents a map of the world but their symbolic value, reminiscent of a more communal pre-internet era, gives the work an additional dimension. Another Saudi artist, Abdullah Al Othman, presents a breathtaking work titled Manifesto: language and the city (2021), an assemblage of neon lights, light boxes and found wooden panels evoking past and present street life in Saudi Arabia.
Chief curator Philip Tinari draws parallels between China and Saudi Arabia under the title feel the stones. The title of the biennale comes from a Chinese slogan from the 1980s, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”, referring to the strategies adopted by China in the late 1970s when transformative economic reforms began to open up the country. to the international community.
Saudi Arabia is arguably in a similar position today, as it undergoes huge cultural and economic changes in line with the government’s Vision 2030 plan designed to diversify the economy. Among the Chinese artists presented at the Diriyah Biennale are Wang Sishun, Xu Bing and Zhang Peili.