T his January, in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the heart of the Islamic world, an exciting new cultural event is imminent. Sotheby’s is an official supporting partner of the inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale, launching on 23 January, at the Western Hajj Terminal at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, traditionally the annual arrival point for millions of pilgrims on their way to perform the Hajj in the holy city of Mecca.
The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina has been a sacred ritual for all Muslims over centuries. Recognised as the biggest single annual mass movement of people anywhere in the world, it’s a week-long journey that takes pilgrims across a series of sacred sites around Mecca and Medina, to perform ancient rituals and timeless prayers, bringing together Muslims of all ages, races and cultures and symbolising devotion, unity, and equality. And for the first edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale, contemporary creatives from around the world have been invited to present works at the iconic canopied airport terminal in Jeddah.
"Sotheby’s has a strong history of supporting cultural programmes in the Middle East – underpinned by a commitment to educational outreach and diversifying cultural initiatives"
The Islamic Arts Biennale is an ambitious project. A ground-breaking one, even - no other event has hitherto presented a grouping of Islamic-inspired arts in this manner, spanning architecture, design, visual art, and historic objects. An initiative of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation it is set to run over 12 weeks, from 23 January to 23 April 2023, in four purpose-designed galleries, a satellite exhibition Al Madar ('The Orbit'), two pavilions and a grand canopy.
The diversity of work on display includes photography, installations, video, sculptures, painting, fabric works and more by artists from Algeria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, the United Kingdom, Palestine, Jordan and Kuwait, amongst many others. In all, alongside the 65+ contemporary artworks on show from 40 artists/collectives (including 17 participating Saudi Arabian artists), there will be over 280 artifacts (including 239 from Saudi Arabia), 20 of which have never been exhibited before, within the 12,000sqm airport terminal. Even the site itself is a work of architectural distinction - designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1981, it was the winner of the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
Sotheby’s partnership with the Islamic Arts Biennale, in support of the Diriyah Biennale Foundation and the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Culture, has come about as part of the auction house’s ongoing commitment to investing in global cultural dialogue and awareness, building on previous engagements in the region. These have included engagements such as Sotheby’s exhibition and Digital Art Forum at the Diriyah Biennale Foundation’s inaugural Contemporary Arts Biennale in February 2022. Building on this successful collaboration, for the 2023 Islamic Biennale, the partnership with Sotheby’s promises specialists on the ground in Jeddah, to lead tours, give talks and participate in panel discussions.
‘Sotheby’s has a strong history of supporting cultural programmes in the Middle East – underpinned by a commitment to educational outreach and diversifying cultural initiatives,’ says Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s Chairman & Head of Department, Middle East and India. ‘We are excited to be partnering with the Diriyah Biennale Foundation for a second time, following our support of the Kingdom’s first cultural biennale last year, continuing to share our expertise in this area.’
The Biennale comes at a time of unprecedented energy within the cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia, the past few years having seen an eruption of galleries, art fairs, biennales and cultural initiatives across the nation. And as a key driver behind the sweeping cultural renaissance across the Kingdom, the Ministry of Culture are on a mission to enrich the artistic life of the country, empowering Saudi youth - particularly Saudi women - who are spearheading the cultural sector.
"Sotheby’s is excited to play our part once again in the educational sphere in the region"
The curatorial concept for the Islamic Art Biennale is Awwal Bait, (‘first house’ in Arabic), referencing the Ka’bah in Mecca and the Qiblah, the direction towards which Muslims all around the world face for prayers. The theme explores a sense of belonging and connection Muslims all over the world experience on the Hajj, through a myriad artistic and creative expressions. The participating artists and creative framework for the event have been overseen by a curatorial team including Saudi scholar and archaeologist Saad Alrashid; Omniya Abdel Barr (Barakat Trust Fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum), Julian Raby (Director Emeritus of the National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC) and Sumayya Vally (Artistic Director, Principal of Counterspace, and Honorary Professor of Practice, University College London).
And this global line-up of curatorial talent is reflected in the Biennale's vast scale and scope. Objects in the exhibitions have been loaned from local, regional and international collections and institutions, including dozens from prestigious public and private collections within Saudi Arabia. Further loans have been secured from renowned collections at the Benaki Museum in Athens; the History of Science Museum at the University of Oxford: the State Museums in Berlin; the Museum for Islamic Art at The Louvre, Paris; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, UK. Closer to home, and the Biennale has secured the loan of works from the Al Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah in Kuwait, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, and Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, among others.
‘Sotheby’s is excited to play our part once again in the educational sphere in the region,’ says Mai Eldib, Head of Sales, Sotheby’s Middle East. ‘Having travelled to Saudi many times over the last decade, it is a joy to be returning for such a historic occasion, together with an unrivalled list of curators and artists who are working in tandem to promote cultural dialogue and spark new conversations.’