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Exploring The Art Scene of Saudi Arabia with Raneen Bukhari

Not many twenty-something year olds can count themselves as curator, gallery manager, and business developer, yet Raneen Bukhari has lived and breathed art since the tender age of three. From the day her parents founded Desert Designs Art Gallery in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, this ambitious woman has been involved in every discussion and decision-making process. Now she’s set out to change the perception of art in what is internationally considered the most conservative country in the world.

IMG_7451“My involvement in the art world is a labor of love,” says Bukhari, who started at the gallery’s café soon after graduating in Management Information Systems, “The gallery is a social experiment of sorts and a great way to get exposure and new customers. We’ve created a family rather than just a business model with the gallery space. It’s a great joy working with art, and I’ve just dipped my toes into its waters.”

Bukhari initially started working part-time at the gallery for three years. After several intensive summer courses at Sotheby’s institute in New York, she gained enough determination and knowledge of art history, finance, and management to join Desert Designs full time.

Other than her multi-faceted hat at the gallery, Bukhari also organizes Loud Art and hosts Huna Art, a creative discussion held every other Saturday. Passionate about art and actively involved in initiatives that engage society to appreciate art as a form, Bukhari is based in Saudi Arabia and remains optimistic while hoping Khaleeji art isn’t “a bubble that will explode anytime soon.”

Here the dynamic art aficionado gives Khaleejesque her honest opinion of the Middle East’s art scene and her aspirations for its future.

Having grown up in the art scene and now working for a regional gallery. What observations have you made both internationally and regionally during your time?
In general, there has been a tremendous upstream in the art scene globally. So you see a lot of people turning into collectors; people are seeing the benefit of investing in artworks, and many have discovered their artistic talents by being inspired with the happening scene. There’s an influx of art galleries opening everywhere, but sadly, not many institutes and schools or workshop facilities. I’ve also noticed that the business of art has increased in KSA more in the last three years than the last decade. With Art Week and Edge of Arabia, the past five years have been a real rollercoaster ride for the art scene. Honestly, if we have more art institutes, workshops, discussions, and open forums
for artists, we’ll have a better appreciation of art and artists who create work that’s different and not repetitive ideas and concepts.

Regarding ethos vs. aesthetics, pop art and all the dynamics related to it seems to be coming through in the work of many artists across the region in different forms, what is your interpretation of this?
To be brutally honest, the era of pop art died with Warhol… He was the life of pop art and anything after him is just copying his style. When you think of what’s happening now in the contemporary scene that’s emulating him, it’s probably the graffiti stencil art. It’s talking about the same type of issues but in different manners, so in KSA probably the most prominent one is Schweesh, he’s a graffiti and stencil artist that uses a Bansky-esque style to send out social issues and social commentary. A lot of the artwork in Saudi features social commentary because it’s difficult to talk about it in a public space and this is the easiest way to discuss it or to say “I have an opinion about it and this is my opinion.”

Desert Designs Art Gallery

One observation we’ve made is that artists in the Gulf are weaving particular themes into their work with nods back to the forefathers of Pop.
Yes, they discuss the same topics and even have the same Warhol attitude. When you think about Koons, he’s doing pop art, and it’s heavily influenced by Warhol even though he’d never admit it. He even acts like a consumer, like “I don’t know what
you’re talking about, there’s no meaning behind this,” but it’s obvious he’s put a lot of thought into it. Everybody sees it as shiny pop artwork, so it’s the same vibe but implemented differently.

And do you see this attitude coming through as a reaction to censorship and segregation?
I can speak for Saudi, because it’s quite a large country and because the cities are separated from one another, so the artists do end up getting separated from one another in their circles. So you’ll see them approaching the same topics and issues, whether it’s women driving or religious police, they’ll discuss it in their circles and implement it in their work so it’s similar yet not related to each other. They’ll have their circles, and then they’ll meet at events like Nuqat in Kuwait or Art Dubai, and then you’ll see the patterns of similarity. For example, someone in Jeddah will do a street sign and someone in Riyadh will do a street sign about a specific issue, yet they’ve never discussed it between them.

Do you feel it’s positive that there’s no discussion between them or do you feel there should be some unity between artists?
There should be some discussion, there should be some kind of governing body but it’s not regulated right now whereby everyone has an open space. There isn’t somewhere right now where people can openly discuss and go out to these kind of events. 21:39 and Jeddah Art Week are the biggest and only events that happen in KSA when it comes to the educational aspect. It should be there, the discussion should happen but it’s so vast. They do talk, but maybe only twice a year.

When we look at past generations who came at a time when consumerism was booming within their sphere, is Saudi now entering this phase and how are artists and their audience reacting?
There is a lack of space to discuss topics because if someone goes to international news media they’ll get backlash back home. They’ll say why are you airing your dirty laundry, so art is something they’ve found that is uncensored to a certain degree. And if they’re clever they can express every kind of emotion through their art, whether it’s realistic or surrealist or through a temporary installation. And yes sometimes they get backlash, but so far no one has because it’s so unregulated and there are no rules. The rules are so vague, in Saudi when you do an art show, you have to send pictures of all the artwork to the Ministry of Information and Interior for permission to display it in public. This is something I practice every time and I’ve never received a rejection for any of the pieces. But there are a lot of rules, such as if it offends someone you have to deal with it. If it does talk about religion, is violent, or overly sexual, then it’s not allowed.

Do you feel that the ambiguity over the rules and regulations is something that is almost permitting it without vocally committing to it?
Yeah, definitely. Because when the people come who are in charge of checking if I’m doing something wrong or not, they see my paperwork and know I’m legit. But if someone goes to the extent of complaining about the art piece then they have the right to say someone got offended and you have to take it down.

And does offense have to be justified?
It does. So for example, the last Loud Art show I did I had a visit by the religious police on the opening night, but on an unofficial capacity because they came as guests, and they were welcome to come and see the artwork and I took them on a tour. They were fine, and they left and then they complained that the show had subliminal messages, some kind of signs, so the Ministry of Culture and Communication came to the show to see the artwork. We told them it was all on the walls, and they said there is nothing [subliminal]. They went back, wrote their report that they didn’t see anything wrong, and it was all ok. It happens, people complain, there are repercussions and checks. Then it’s all over and done with.

The experience we’ve had is that Saudi is very accessible compared to other Gulf countries. Why is this and how are regional events significant?
Everyone is Saudi is keen to be a part of something. Because there is a lack of museums and institutes, whenever there is a chance to get out there and collaborate, they take every opportunity to be a part of something that is larger than them. They’re all for it. Every time I’ve had a program or topic on something, people are so eager and supportive. Everybody is up for having some activity that’s different from the mundane routine of life or being alone or talking with no action. Events give exposure and bring international people to us; people who can critique our work, provide an opportunity to learn from their varied expertise, and help us grow and better our craft.

For more information on Desert Designs, visit www.desertdesigns.com

Interviewed by Lucy Moore

This interview was first published in The Pop Issue Jan/Feb 2015

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