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The Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024 provided a cohesive and compelling, though diverse, narrative on the looming crisis of our times

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he previous century witnessed a great transformation – people moving from villages to cities; migrating from one country to another; abandoning their ancestral lands, professions, languages, attires, foods and customs for new, often unfamiliar and unsuited ones. Developments in the means of communications - roads, trains, ships, aeroplanes, postal systems, land-line and mobile phones - have heightened the phenomenon.

The outcome is a serious threat to nature. The harmony and self-sustainability were first disrupted by the colonial powers’ control over raw materials found in the conquered regions and later by the industrialised societies’ need for immigrant labour. The alienation, displacement and dispossession caused by these changes are evident in our surroundings, where a human being is isolated not only from other people but also from other living beings and elements of nature.

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A number of artists participating in the second edition of Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale 2024 (February20–May 24), observed the spread of migration, racial and gender injustice, dislocation, conflict, globalisation and commercialisation in our midst and addressed those in their work. Selected by a curatorial team led by Ute Meta Bauer, the Biennale’s artistic director, the work offered a cohesive and compelling, though diverse, narrative on the looming crisis of our times.

A person living in a block of apartments anywhere on the planet has experienced the chilling indifference in which other humans are mere spectacle, not unlike a frame on one’s TV screen. In her series of 260 photographs titled Dalam (interior in Malay), Simryn Gill, who grew up in Malaysia and resides in Australia, captured the inside of various living rooms, all having an air of uprooted existence.

How the city invades nature was documented in research-based projects by several artists. Camille Zakharia, for instance, recorded the onslaught of urbanisation in his three photographic series. In Coastal Promenade, he showed fishermen’s huts on the Bahrain seashore torn down for development and rehabilitation. The Mountain My Neighbour presented a strange spectacle of a familiar phenomenon of ancient landscape being sliced, chopped and eliminated to build modern houses and tarmac roads.

The duel between nature and culture, between stone and concrete was impressively dealt with in“a restoration process of an earthen building in Diriyah,” named, An Architecture of Continuity. The small enclosures of Shamalat, can surprise one upon coming across a beautiful blend of the raw and the refined. Unhewn sections of old structures were incorporated into pristine white walls, concrete beams, aluminium windows with clear glass, so that a visitor could admire the past and the present as a merger of unified aesthetics. One could similarly appreciate Maha Malluh’s small photographs of residential quarters from the area, due to the haunting presence of immediate history and the pictorial sophistication that turns ordinary spaces into visual poetry. Malluh had also found disbanded segments of old buildings, i.e., wooden doors, windows and metal gates, and displayed them as humanised residue of fiction, function and fatality.

Enveloped in its past and present, the city also fascinates Nazgol Ansarinia. The Iranian-born invoked not only the architectural remains but also socio-political factors that shape external outlets and inner systems. Each one of her Pillars, is composed of an article from the Iranian constitution. The Persian text is rotated on an axis to form capitals not dissimilar to those sighted in Tehran. She cuts the capital, like a piece of cake, to reveal Farsi writing, occasionally decipherable. Ansarinia’s remarkable and courageous sculptures were a reminder of the way state can influence every crevice of human existence. Her other work, Membrane, included casts of city walls marked for demolition. The sensitive imprint looked like human skin. The papier-mâché are in fact the archives of those who rubbed their bodies against the solid yet tactile surfaces, or/ and lived in the buildings.

Seher Shah had reconstructed the metropolis in an intimate language that resembled musical notation. Of Dust and Measure (5-9), revealed ruptures between spaces, suggesting the shadow of surveillance the Karachi-born Shah has experienced like any other South Asian citizen and recalls. The musical motif in her drawings can be connected to super-sensitive work on paper by Lala Rukh. Apparently seascapes at night, with a lone wave illuminated by the moon, her Untitled visuals were rooted in absorbing music. Abstract, minimal, unreadable imagery resonated with the classical music Rukh was so fond of – probably because of her father (Hayat Ahmed Khan, the key organiser of All Pakistan Music Conferences in Lahore).

The silver edge in Rukh’s seascape is connected to her drawings of human contours rendered in subdued and marvellously minimal marks. Both types of imagery suggest the slow erasure of the human body and are not separate from the artist’s feminist position, observation and critique of the patriarchal society, especially during military dictatorship, a period known for forcing women to withdraw from public life in Pakistan. Lala Rukh and other female activists and political workers had opposed, resisted and protested against it.

Women in some other countries also face similar barriers, bans and restrictions. In Saudi Arabia, women were finally allowed to drive a vehicle on the September 26, 2017. Visiting the Royal Kingdom recently, one noticed a huge shift towards women’s space, presence and participation in every walk of life. Christine Fenzl had caught this change in her photographic series Women of Riyadh, comprising 12 portraits of women - alone, with another female or in the company of a man. These working ladies, dressed in varying attires, chose the background for their portraits, so that the section of the city or part of the interior also reflected a side of their personality. Once pushed back, these women have now emerged independent, confident and content.

Other marginalised communities were also represented at the Biennale; particularly in two pieces in the series Siukar Manusia by the Polish artist Malgorzata Mirga-Tas. The title means ‘great or wonderful people’ in the language of the Romani community: nomads who are permanently displaced in their adapted homelands. Mirga-Tas was celebrating this otherness in producing family portraits by joining discarded textile pieces: a man holding his daughter and sitting next to a cat, a woman standing with a young boy and carrying an umbrella. This depiction of simple folks, not-painterly, was a conscious attempt at employing a medium associated with women and those for long considered ill-suited to produce art.

It was not just an ethnicity that suffered oppression from a dominant majority, the exile isolated from the mainstream; women were also removed from a world dominated by men. In European art history texts, being a woman and from a peripheral region, made the invisibility twice painful.

The second edition of Diriyah Biennale of Contemporary Art featured paintings of several early female modernists such as Nabila Al-Bassam and Safeya Binzagr, both from Saudi Arabia. Both had been documenting their history but were not acknowledged by their male counterparts. Often dismissed or patronised as hobbyists or craftswomen; they were finally recognised as deserving of their high status. Alanood A Al-Sudairi, the curatorial assistant of the Biennale; said, “there were always artists in Saudi Arabia but they were not necessarily called artists.”


The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Artists by another name