Edge of Arabia – Berlin

Posted on July 15, 2010


Edge of Arabia is an exhibition organised by community interest company ‘Offscreen’. It is a unique collection of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia, from an art community that is historically non-existent and is now trying to find it’s feet and break through. After the impressive world debut of the Edge of Arabia exhibition in the Palazzo di Contarini at the Venice Biennale last year I had high hopes for it’s appearance at the 2010 Berlin Biennale.

The exhibition is housed at number one, Torstrasse in the almost complete (regenerated) Soho Haus, which belongs to the same clan as Shoreditch House in London. It would not have been my choice of venue, although the space itself is fine, the presence of this smart and pretentious members club rather robs us of the integral ‘edge’ spirit usually associated with the exhibition.  Berlin is full of heavy, graffitied doorways that exude promise for such a show. Out on the eastern end of the Torstrasse limb this location feels somewhat removed from the imagined heart of the biennale festivities, but perhaps this is merely the nature of the biennale in Berlin.

‘Illumination 1’

For me there are two artists that represent the back-bone of the exhibition; Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem. Both produce work that has a maturity to it that could be unexpected in this kind of context (an artistic community that is officially non-existent). Ahmed Mater is a Doctor as well as an artist and naturally explores the connections between the two worlds. This kind of enquirey gives his work a direction and an air of seriousness and legitimacy. A prime example of this can be found in his ‘Illumination’ of ‘Evolution of Man’ works, the link between the professions is at it’s most literal here and in their combined form they work towards a social commentary. On the whole I think the director has successfully managed to avoid the pit fall of venturing over to Saudi only to be directed in who to meet and be exposed to.

‘Evolution of Man’

‘The Path’

On this second major outing the exhibition still looks great and I tried to resist drawing comparisons with the Venice showing. Some older work remains, ‘The Path’ appears toned down in picture form only and the ‘Evolution of Man’ is presented as a lightbox piece.  Some of the new work lacks the power of previous components and the void left by some pieces such as Ahmed Mater’s ‘Magnetism’ is apparent but, of course, the exhibition must evolve. The most popular new addition must be Hala Ali’s ‘The Girl’s Room’. Reflections on men, women, sexuality etc are naturally at the forefront of many pieces that attempt to address Saudi society. To view a piece of this nature out of context could result in perception that can best be described as ‘old hat’ to us Westerners but once one starts to access the mindset and arena from whence these artists are borne the prevalence becomes obvious. This is one of Edge of Arabia’s strongest attributes, the strong sense of shared origin and future hope that knits the whole exhibition together.


‘The Girl’s Room’

The biggest success of Edge of Arabia in my opinion is the accessibility it presents and the conversation it offers. I’m a big advocate of the validity of the ‘laymans’ opinion and I think this is a very contemporary and forward thinking attitude demonstrated by the curators.  As we become increasingly global we can all engage and learn from the lives of other nations and Edge of Arabia demonstrates that art can be such a great platform to carry out, and even initiate, this dialog.