A rectangular meeting place with the walls made out of reeds at the Islamic Arts Biennale 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Islamic Art Biennales Part 2: Jeddah

Welcome to a blog post that will take you on an exhilarating journey through the world of Islamic art. Part one of this two-part series on Islamic Art Biennales covered the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennale. Today, we’ll dive into the extraordinary experience of the first-ever Islamic Arts Biennale held in the dynamic seaside city of Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

This biennale showcased a fusion of tradition and innovation, weaving a tapestry of artistic brilliance that left visitors spellbound. It comprised 60 commissions, 15 never-before-exhibited works, and 280 artefacts. Titled Awwal Bait, which means First House, the biennale celebrates the art of Islam and the art of being a Muslim. It explores the timeless rituals that have defined Islam from its beginning to the present day. These rituals are about movement, sound, and lines of direction. So, buckle up and let’s embark on this unforgettable adventure together!

A Kaleidoscope of Creativity

The arrival at the biennale venue was mesmerising as the biennale was located at the iconic Western Hajj Terminal, the departure point for those embarking on the journey to Makkah (Mecca). Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1981 and recipient of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the scale of the terminal is dizzying. It highlights the sheer number of people for whom the pilgrimage is vital to their religious practice and culture. 

 As I stepped foot into the biennale, I was immediately enveloped in a vibrant atmosphere brimming with anticipation and creative energy. Also, it was a lovely surprise to learn that our tour would be guided by the biennale’s Artistic Director – the brilliant Sumayya Vally

The venue buzzed excitedly as visitors eagerly walked between halls and in the outdoor exhibition area under the cool evening sky. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder, knowing I was about to witness a showcase of Islamic artistry like no other before it.

The first section we toured was one called Adhan, dedicated to the call to prayer. The first work encountered was Cosmic Breath by Joseph Namy. In it, 18 megaphones played the call to prayer from different parts of the world alongside those from the Haram Mosque. Next, the various slices made of gold of an Astolabe, the instrument used to tell the timing of each of the five prayer times in the day. Each piece is etched with either writing or other indicators of the universe around us.

Another work was a visual representation of the pitch and melody of the verses in the call to prayer, entitled Wave Catcher by Basmah Felemban

The use of thread 

Threading was also used interestingly in two works. The first was The River Remembers (2023) by Kamruzzaman Shadin. It responds to the stories of the displacement of his grandparents from a village next to the Teesta River during the Partition of Bengal in 1947 into India and Bangladesh. Shadin wove the veils using a knotting technique crafted by Johura Begum. Johura was directly affected by the Partition and had to move from Assam to a place by the Brahmaputra river. 

The River Remembers (2023) by Kamruzzaman Shadin

The second entitled Letters in Light (Lines we write)(2023) by Muhannad Shono,. It takes the viewer on a journey which spans two rooms in the exhibition space. The artist pairs the work with the sonic element and the clever use of light, invoking a spiritual experience.

As we move into the next space, intricate calligraphy written in gold Kufic script dances across parchment leaves. The delicate brushstrokes and meticulous attention to detail were a testament to the skill and dedication of the authors. The parchment leaves are from an early copy of the profound words of the Qur’an. It was as if the art whispered stories of faith, spirituality, and the timelessness of Islamic culture.

A Modern Twist on Tradition

The second section of the biennale took a bold leap into contemporary Islamic art. Here, traditional art forms collided with modern interpretations, resulting in a mesmerising fusion of innovation and cultural heritage. The exhibits pushed boundaries, challenging preconceived notions of Islamic art and revealing its ability to adapt and evolve with the changing times.

Kolona min Torab (2023) by M’Barek Bouhchichi explores the bond that unites everyone. It is a work of 1,288 units using clay from the Ourika Valley and natural pigments from all over Morocco. It outlines the complexity of differences in geography, geology and people, with the shape of each tile resembling a doorway. This work was one of my favourites.

Architects and scholars Beya Othmani, Ziad Jamaleddine and Iheb Guermazi’s work entitled Jerba: Prototype 366. It is an imaging of the 366th mosque on the Tunisian island of Jerba: a mosque for one person, made up of the mihrab, the ablution bowl and a stool, set in a mound of gravel similar to the topography of the island. 

In the foreground is a bowl of steel on a low pedestal, to the right is a mound of gravel and behind it to the left is a steel stool. The work is an imaging of the 366th mosque on the island of Jerba in Tunisia.
Jerba: Prototype 366 (2023) by Beya Othamani, Ziad Jamaleddine and Iheb Guermazi

One standout exhibit in this section was a series of mixed-media installations. Sculptures crafted from various materials, capturing the essence of the art of being Muslim with a contemporary twist. 

A touching reminder of home

As a South African, seeing artworks by two of my fellow compatriots was touching. Salat al-jama’ah (2023) by Igshaan Adams highlights the value of collective worship. The work comprises several well-used prayer rugs bearing the markings of repetitive movement. Those markings are accentuated with beads and semi-precious stones. 

Amongst Men (2014/2023) by Haroon Gunn-Salie is a particularly moving work. Gunn-Salie recreates the 1969 funeral of imam Abdulla Haroon, an outspoken critic of Apartheid, who was murdered by police while in custody. His funeral was attended by 40,000 men. The men are represented by one thousand individually cast kufi caps worn by Muslim men in several parts of the world. The caps are often associated with mourning. 

The works were a juxtaposition of comfort from collective worship, and the pain of collective mourning. Both in the cruel setting of the crime against humanity of Apartheid. As both Adam and Gunn-Salie were born before democracy in South Africa, their works created a visually striking, emotion-provoking experience.

Cultural and Creative Crossroads

Beyond the mesmerising art displays, the biennale served as a melting pot of cultural exchange. Visitors from diverse backgrounds assembled to celebrate the universal language of art and forge connections that transcended borders. Conversations filled the air as artists and attendees engaged in dialogue, sharing stories and insights into the rich tapestry of Islamic culture. Similarly, architecture’s role in showcasing the creativity of spaces and places in the story of Islam was a delight.

The outdoor exhibition space examines the Hijrah, or Migration period in the history of Islamic worship. The first work that caught my eye was an installation by Moath Alofi and Sumayya Vally. It was a roadside mosque of stones arranged in a square with an indent along the edge showing the direction of Makkah. The simple act of defining a boundary created a place of ritual performance.

An installation by architects Abdulrahman Gazzaz and Turki Gazzaz, from Bricklab, reflected on the history of modern architecture in Saudi Arabia. One such building is the Air Pilgrim Accommodation. As a matter of fact, it is where American civil rights activist Malcolm X stayed on his pilgrimage to Makkah in 1964. Another meeting place, by Sara Alissa and Nojoud Alsudairi from Syn Architects, was furnished out of reeds with slit openings. In fact, the structure reimagined the sundial in traditional mosque courtyards as the slits in the reed wall signal the prayer times. At the same time, the reed structure reminded me of a kraal or meeting place typical of many southern African people in pre-colonial times.

It was a testament to the power of art in fostering unity and understanding among people from various walks of life.

Workshops and Immersive Experiences

The biennale went beyond passive observation, allowing visitors to actively engage with the art through workshops and immersive experiences. 

It was also quite the privilege to see artefacts representing a collaboration from several institutions. Many were from the al-Sabah Collection, a cultural institution from Kuwait. These included silk panels and Indian katar daggers. Others included a talismanic shirt with the completed text of the Qur’an embroidered into it, and other gilded garments from the 19th century.

The first Islamic Art Biennale – A Lasting Legacy

Obviously, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lasting impact of this remarkable event. Beyond the beauty and inspiration it provided, the biennale left a profound legacy of cultural exchange and artistic exploration. The works of art created and displayed during this event will continue to captivate audiences for years to come. No doubt they will inspire future generations to appreciate and celebrate the rich tradition of Islamic art.

End notes

The first Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah was an extraordinary testament to the power of art in fostering unity, understanding, and appreciation for Islamic culture. Chiefly, this biennale seamlessly blended tradition and innovation, inviting visitors on an enchanting journey through the captivating world of Islamic art. From the intricate calligraphy to the contemporary interpretations, every exhibit radiated creativity and left a lasting impression.

Finally, as I reluctantly bid farewell to the biennale, I carried with me a newfound appreciation for Islamic art. I also learnt so much about the daily practices of Muslims from all around the world. The memories of the vibrant atmosphere, the captivating exhibits, and the cultural exchanges will forever remain etched in my heart. The Diriyah Biennale Foundation has committed to two successive contemporary and Islamic arts biennales. So I encourage everyone, whether art enthusiasts or curious wanderers, to seize the opportunity to explore the world of Islamic art at the next Islamic Arts Biennale—it’s an experience you won’t want to miss!

The first Islamic Arts Biennale ran from to 23 January to 23 May 2023.
We would like to thank the YGLs in Saudi Arabia and the Diriyah Biennale Foundation for making the visit possible.

The courtyard of the Islamic Arts Biennale 2023 in Jeddah. There is a shallow pool or water feature in the foreground and a restaurant is in the background.

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