Mohammed Hafiz co-founded Athr Gallery in Jeddah in 2009 with Hamza Serafi. For the past decade, he’s been part of a grassroots effort to bring art made in Saudi Arabia to international attention. At the local level, the gallery provides a platform for artists, curators, publications, and patrons alike. Athr is also involved in the Saudi Art Council and promoting emerging talents via a biannual showcase.
Whitewall spoke with Hafiz and gallery director Alia Fattouh about maintaining a sustainable ecosystem for arts and culture in Jeddah.
WHITEWALL: Athr is described as a space not just for exhibitions, but for experimentation and engagement. How does Athr offer a chance for artists to try something new?
MOHAMMED HAFIZ & ALIA FATTOUH: Indeed, the gallery was the first to operate on an international level and standard in the country. Locally, we provided artists the opportunity to approach art as a career; we worked with international curators, supported publications, production, involved patrons and started by creating a small ecosystem that already had affinities in art. We did so by providing a platform where not just artists, but creatives in general, could express themselves, meet, think, and exchange ideas—a sort of incubator for creatives.
WW: Can you tell us about what kind of space you wanted to create then in Jeddah when you co-founded Athr Gallery?
MH & AF: When we opened in 2009, art and culture weren’t on people’s radars. For a long time the gallery was one of very few gateways for Saudi art internationally and a catalyst for the art scene locally. People didn’t know that Saudi artists existed. We worked with artists and supported going to residencies, participated in leading art fairs and panel discussions, forums and summits, placed artists in museum collections and exhibitions. These are some of the things we did to build this awareness.
Locally, we made sure to invite schools and universities to our shows, offered workshops, and really oscillated between an art space and a traditional commercial gallery. In that sense, the gallery was one of the pioneers in championing contemporary Saudi art, and it’s crucial to mention the Edge of Arabia was also key in positioning Saudi art internationally.
WW: The Young Saudi Artists show just had its sixth edition. What kind of impact have you seen it have?
MH & AF: We created a biannual exhibition titled the Young Saudi Artists, whereby we launch open calls inviting artists from all corners of the country to apply and offer them the chance to exhibit in a professional setting and a possibility to be represented by the gallery. A lot of Athr’s role is nurturing and encouraging grassroots initiatives.
We are also founding members of the Saudi Art Council (SAC), which had a major impact on Jeddah’s scene. SAC is formed by some of Jeddah’s most supportive patrons and who established 21,39, Jeddah’s art week, which includes large-scale annual exhibitions curated by international curators and educational programs that run throughout the year. SAC invited art professionals from around the world to visit and engage with the scene, build bridges with the rest of the contemporary art world, and foster knowledge.
Some of the challenges we faced stemmed from the lack of infrastructure and operating in a vacuum. Things as essential as art handling, art insurance, and art shipping were not available, so we had to train people and deal with a lot of red tape, and of course pushing the boundaries is something we did gradually and carefully. Some of the continued challenges are human capital, finding the right expertise in art and gallery practices.
WW: Ten years later, how has the mission of Athr grown and evolved? What is the current state of the Saudi Arabian art scene?
MH & AF: The art scene is thriving and going through a radical transformation through a top-down push to build a lasting and wholesome ecosystem that continues to nurture the grassroots. The Ministry of Culture, which was formed last year, has initiated a number of projects ranging from scholarships, residencies, commissions, production, collection-building, museums, art centers, education and spreads into poetry, literature, art, music, film, and of course visual arts.
Other very active organizations that are having a major impact are the Royal Commission of Al Ula, who are behind Desert X Al Ula and who also have museums and permanent commissions planned in the stunning desert of Al Ula; Ithra art center, who are operating in the Eastern Province and whose building is designed by Snøhetta and have a permanent collection; and Misk in Riyadh who has an active educational role and is also building a collection, amongst many other projects.
WW: What does the future hold for the Saudi Arabian art scene?
MH & AF: I believe the Saudi art scene has a lot to offer and artists and creatives have a lot to say. They’re eager to work, produce, and exhibit, and their artistic language is unique. Saudi culture is untapped and unknown to the rest of the world, and there are a slew of subjects that artists are exploring, ranging from anthropological interests to socially engaged practices. The country’s art scene is full of grassroots, independent, and underground initiatives, and with the extra push by the Ministry, we will hopefully see a cohesive and sustainable ecosystem. If sustainable, the future holds a major place for art and culture in Saudi and hopefully with a significant presence on an international level.