Shift: Three young Saudi artists in London

 Cell of the City, 2017 by Zahrah Al-Ghamdi. Photo by Andy Stagg. Courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms

Cell of the City, 2017 by Zahrah Al-Ghamdi. Photo by Andy Stagg. Courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms

The shifting sands of the desert are not merely an apt metaphor for nomadic ways of life long lost to tradition in the Middle East, they are also relevant when looking at the region through a contemporary lens.

The Gulf region in particular is now characterised by constant change, whether that means the relentless march of capitalism, rapid urban development or the transience of the local populations. All this could be symbolised by the shifting sands of the desert landscape nascent to the region.

Hence the name Shift, the UK debut of three young female artists from Saudi Arabia: Zahrah Al-Ghamdi, Dana Awartani and Reem Al-Nasser at The Mosaic Rooms in London. Their works – two site specific installations and an audio-visual work - reflect their experiences of living in their home cities and domestic spaces caught between a future driven by globalisation and rapid social change, and cultural heritage, which is under threat of being erased.

Al Ghamdi’s work, an iteration of an installation that she exhibited in Dubai in March 2016, is called Cell of the City. It is wall installation made of multiple layers of mixed sand, clay and cloth and stems from a fascination with the way the land she inhabits is always changing. The artwork is also ephemeral and it will deteriorate over the course of the exhibition, shedding sand onto the floor and therefore offering new perspectives.

Sand is also a central part of the second and incredibly intricate installation by Awartani. I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming is made from hand dyed sand, which has then been layered it upon the ground so that it resembles traditional floor tiles, designed in an Islamic geometric pattern. It was exhibited earlier this year in Jeddah’s 21:39 festival during which she also staged a performance and swept the sand away. A video of this is playing in the exhibition. Commenting on the fragility of heritage and tradition as well as the dynamic nature of her society, the entire gesture of this art work is wonderfully poetic and is testament to her growing talent.

 I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembdered I'd forgotten you. I was dreaming. Installation of hand dyed sand (2017) by Dana Awartani. Photo by Andy Stagg. Courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms.

I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembdered I'd forgotten you. I was dreaming. Installation of hand dyed sand (2017) by Dana Awartani. Photo by Andy Stagg. Courtesy of The Mosaic Rooms.

Al Nasser’s work The Silver Plate is a three-part multimedia installation representing one woman’s perception of her past, present, future. The rhythm of time passing is certainly present in this work especially in the two-channel video which shows, on one side, fingers drumming on a silver plate – a traditional act at wedding celebrations – and on the other, water dripping onto the same plate. In some ways the piece is frantic and may allude to the social pressures put onto women to get married before a certain age. It is also contemplative and with the voices whispering the words ‘qareeb’ (near) and ba’eed (far) in the background, it seems Al Nasser is also commenting on this push and pull between tradition and modernity that is so magnified in the Gulf.

At the end of the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to pick up a booklet that is Al Nasser’s interpretation of the future. Its pages are filled with concentric circles, which pick up notions of rhythm as well as offering endless possibilities.

All three artists were selected because they are full of promise and this exhibition certainly exemplifies that.

  • Shift, July 1 – September 2 2017, The Mosaic Rooms, London