Not a single regional artist we have encountered since the beginning of our journey did not mention Saudi. According to many the Saudi art scenes, whether urban art or contemporary art, were among the greatest in the region.
Scenes, because the country is so huge that the topic could be divided amongst 3 big cities. Dammam in the Eastern Province on the Arabian Gulf, Riyadh the kingdom’s capital city situated in the Najd desert and finally Jeddah lying on the Red Sea’s shores.
Of course the variety of the geographical roots provided these 3 cities with some greatly different tempers. The conservative Riyadh has been shaped by the old Bedouin’s traditions and the hard quality of a desert life. Blending the inherent tribes’ history together with the sudden wealth the kingdom enjoyed for the past fifty years. Usually this shared idea of a conservative Riyadh prevents one from acknowledging that an art scene blossoms there. Yet, the reality is everything but that statement. On the contrary the art scene is alive and well as the Telfaz 11 crew, leaded by most famous Alaa Wardi and Hisham Fageeh, is popping out the sand. In a country where YouTube skyrockets, fresh videos aired by this eccentric collective of artists hit the million viewed.
Dammam on the other hand could not deny the influence provided by the Arabian Gulf, such as the influences carried by the close liberal Bahraini neighbor operating a clever exchange of culture between both kingdoms. The city also opens on this particular environment in which glorious civilizations share their radiances such as Iraq or Persia. Finally the Saudi Eastern region also hosts the major part of its Shia citizens who too contribute to this singular culture. Without forgetting Saudi Aramco the mastodon national oil company which main office is located in the close city of Dhahran. Aramco is also one of the kingdom’s greatest art sponsors which unceasingly organizes events and showcases newest talents.
But our journey led us to another Saudi city that too couldn’t blush of its own effulgence. Since the pre-Islamic times, Jeddah has been an unavoidable merchants’ harbor between the remote India and the Mediterranean. As every harbor, Jeddah hosts a great deal of mixed nationalities allowing the city to enjoy a unique culture of its own and jealously claiming its specificity. Most liberal city of the Kingdom as well as summer retreat place for the Saudi Government, Jeddah is one of a kind. Situated in Lawrence of Arabia’s beloved Hejaz few kilometers away from the Holy city of Mecca, Jeddah is an economic center as well as a cultural hub. Such as the Jeddah Art Week created in 2013, an initiative aiming “to encourage the burgeoning art scene in Jeddah and the Kingdom”. In 2014 already the world famous graffiti French Tunisian artist eL Seed came to perform one of his well-known “calligraffiti” on an Al-Balad’s wall, the historical district of Jeddah.
Afraid of being disappointed by a place we have so frequently heard the praises, as the “first night” constantly fails to reach your expectations; our primary experience in the kingdom was not for reassuring us. Stuck for 3 consecutive hours at the airport, standing in line all along, with barely 10 persons ahead of us, we were losing hope to ever see this inhuman sun locals are so boasting about. It also managed to teach us how to be patient with airport officers, and we’ve heard that it could be of use if we ever go to the US.
Once this little maturity teaching chapter elapsed, the rest of the journey never failed to get us back to some early ages when I recall myself being marveled by anything but the simplest things. Such as: “look the streets are not made out of gold here”, or, “woaw all the women do not wear the niqab around here”.
We have been told, surely by twisted minds, that staying in Al Rawdah district “was perfect because situated right in the middle of Jeddah, close to everything…”.
Yeah! Well, no it’s not.
Jeddah extends its gigantic urbanity on 1, 320 km2 ! Okay let’s put this traight, we come from Paris, where you can cross the city from East to West within an hour or less… In Jeddah that’s the time needed to change district. Oh and yes, these “perverts” signals slowly county down the time you’ll still have to remain inactive at the traffic lights must be the most sickening invention of all time.
However, soon enough all the grieves vanished before the warm welcoming from the locals, expat or natives. Thanks to the Cultural Conseiller of the French Consulate we quickly came in contact with a very original fellow. Aous, is both French and Syrian, born in Strasbourg, raised in Mecca, he spent most of his life between the Holy city and Jeddah. In his twenties Aous has been an unexpected and precious guide during all our stay. We have been blessed by encountering that exact same “kind” of patient and tremendously helping people all along our journey in Jeddah. Artists keen on kindly introducing us to key people of the scenes, such as the very talented Zahra Bundakji, who invited us to one of the talk she and her fellow co-workers organize: Casual Art talk hosted at Onqoud. Talk revolving around the dynamism, creativity and the singularity of Jeddah, in other words all which contribute giving the city an idiosyncratic soul.
We had Aous Chazal over the phone the previous night, talking perfect French of course; the contrary would have been surprising with this famous last name. We settled a meeting nearby the Dhad Store up North the city. While waiting for him under this sun (yeah now we get why they boast about it), a car furiously stopped at our feet. A thin white guy, coming out of the car, wearing the traditional white thawb and conveying a large smile. Shaking our hands, “ ‘suis Aous, ahlan wa salhan”. There it was, the perfect symbiosis of French and Arab culture. He later confessed that he does not usually wear the thawb on a daily basis, not even the sandals, another myth was falling apart.
He took us on a “graff” tour, starting few meters away with a large wall entirely painted by the Dhad Family crew. Twelve guys obsessed by urban culture, painters, video makers, communication specialists or graff fanatics, the only fanatics we’ve encountered in Saudi.
Or maybe not: their symbol, a large blue bear face looking dead serious, frowning and staring at you to whom you’d have given all items if he’d asked. A quick look at Melchior and a nod meaning “seems those guys are serious shit”.
He then led us into the Dhad Store. HQ of the collective. There we met with all the members and would spend the following days invading their space while they would spoil us with kind treats: the Arab welcoming tradition.
(Note for future Arab encounters: even if you impose yourself, you remain a guest. It’s like Christmas every day!)
The Dhad Store has been entirely built from scratch, handmade from the lightnings, the table or even the massive shelf that runs along the wall and hosts the thousand cans they monthly import. Only shop that sales paint cans in Jeddah, the Dhad Store is also among the first on Saudi soil. Undertook few years ago, this amazing adventure is already self-sustainable and is on the verge of great achievements. We were so jealous.
But suddenly an iron shutter closed the unique entrance of the shop. There it was… At last, much more alike the Saudi Arabia described on CNN. Two frail Frenchmen confined with a bunch of … “It’s prayer time!” Aous says. Yeah of course it is, we knew it…
A big name of Jeddah Urban Scene enters the shop. Big in name as well as massive.
Big Hass: DJ, radio host, magazine founder and editor in chief but more importantly a major support of this young movement. Big Hass could easily brag about the many collaborative works he carried out for the past years. Yet, he does not, instead he emphasizes on the Dhad Family and puts artists forward such as Maz. Big Hass was recommended to us by Bahraini DJ Outlaw, highlighting the fact we entered a hounds. Then follows an introduction of our project leading to a very interesting conversation about art and religion, which reminded us that Saudi was indeed the land of the Two Holy Mosques.
This pride in the Saudi culture comes along with the choice of the name these artists made: Dhad. The Arabic letter that exists in no other language. More than a naïve symbol, true claim and statement of the Arab culture.
Big Hass welcomed us on his weekly radio show, he wanted to understand what exactly drove us in this mad adventure without realizing that the people he introduced us were exactly these reasons. Friend with famous eL Seed and Saudi rap star Qusai, not a single Urban Art Scene member ignored who he is in Saudi and in the entire region. Behind his mic Hass fires at will, and gosh we love his targets: fake US pop stars, vague teenage celebrities that record labels vainly put into a studio, Bieber or Cyrius, today’s Scylla and Charybdis of creativity…
Back to basics, Wu-Tang and NAS. All we need.
Maz, the street artist we’ve met at Dhad Store that day, has been recommended by el Seed himself to collaborate to the Paris Tour 13 crazy project that took place in the 13th arrondissement facing the Seine River. A massive meeting of few of the most talented street artists on the Globe working side by side in an ephemeral exhibition, providing the neighborhood with a constant flow of onlookers and passionate resulting in never-ending line in front of an outdated building.
Native from the South, close to the Yemeni border, Maz settled with his family in Jeddah. In his thirties, he is considered as one of the most prominent street artist in the kingdom. He never stops working and endorses furthers “hats” or several lives. Graphic designer by day, he transforms as a painter at night. He even sometimes becomes taxi driver. Yet, he might be able to completely live out of his art, an achievement than only tiny few could hope for in the region.
Funny, curious and smart, both he and Aous allowed us to tag along to the Mosque that Friday for the prayer. An intense and moving moment that we are not about to forget any time soon.
Maz did not go to Paris alone. He was joined by other pioneering artists among which, Maryam aka Mark M. Together with her friend Odod, Mark M paints sometimes with the
Dhad Family, sometimes alone.
In their traditional hijab, they defy the heat and graff everywhere they can. Like on this spot in Al-Rawdah park nearby the basketball field. They also perform commissioned work when asked, a way to express their artistic talents without defying the law. Calm, quiet but determined they both explain what it means to be a female graffiti artist in the Kingdom. More complicated than for a male because of the social pressure. Sometimes it’s easier for Saudi women to reach an international fame than a national. Such as Haifaa al-Mansour, the first female film director from Saudi.
Not at any price however as Odod and Mark M wisely told us: “keep your identity”.
At the end of the radio show Big Hass advised us to check on one rap singer.
Stage name: Anas Arabi. This fellow is quite of a special one of his own. He sings in Fusha, the traditional Arabic. The one of the Holy Quran. Only Saudis and Yemenis still master the complexity of this marvelous language. Yes, but Anas is a Syrian native… Well, he would explain you that even if not all Arabs can still speak Fusha fluently, they all understand it. Which makes his music global. He also raps in English, and Syrian dialect. Part of the Run Junxion collective, their albums always get a large media coverage in Saudi. Anas collaborated with Qusai for one of his song (the same one used for this video, don’t worry we asked for permissions).
We could not say that we understand all of Anas’ lyrics, even not a tiny part though, but he told us it was related with contemporary topics, the kind of the Arab World doesn’t lack of. Yet very societal driven, such as a song he did with a fellow Lebanese guy. The superficiality of the views displayed about the region is constantly denounced by regional artists.
The least that we can say is that Saudi blew our minds, and it’s a “first night” we would gladly undertake one more time, ‘cause it sure reached our expectations, even outmatched them.
Twitter @ AnasArabi
Twitter: @ Telfaz11
Twitter: @ AlaaWardi
Twitter: @ HishamFageeh
Twitter: @ HaifaaMansour
Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus : … nah, just kidding.