Noor Aldabbagh is a crossdisciplinary curator from Saudi Arabia, with degrees from Sotheby’s of London and Harvard University, whose reach of influence spans continents. Through exhibitions and the not-for-profit platform of Banafsajeel, she brings together artists, designers and like-minded creative activists across the Persian Gulf region. An unstoppable force, she forges relationships across borders, raising bridges through collaborative leadership methods — a herald of the expanding contemporary art scene of the Persian Gulf as people of the world migrate and cultural focuses shift.
This Sunday, Aldabbagh stepped foot in the Atlanta International airport for the first time. Supported by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and organized by the Georgia Council for International Visitors, she will be presenting at MOCA GA tonight to talk about her organization’s latest exhibition, Banafsajeel’s mission, the rapidly changing art scene of Saudi Arabia and how each of these have an astounding resonance with the city of Atlanta and our global conditions.
ArtsATL had a chance to talk to her, leading up to her visit.
ArtsATL: What characterizes the contemporary art scene in Saudi Arabia and the greater Gulf region?
Noor Aldabbagh: The Gulf art scene has been on the rise in the past 15 years, and towards more international recognition in the past five years. Before that, the larger cultural capitals were Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus, but because of economic and political changes, it has shifted more to the Gulf — particularly Dubai, Sharjha, Abu Dhabi, which are all in the United Arab Emirates — but also Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the last exhibition was held and where the film I am screening at MOCA GA is set.
It will be nice to learn more about your region too. I don’t know much about Atlanta, so I’m learning more about the creative scene through this trip.
ArtsATL: It’s an interesting city. It has a lot of creative people and a good bit of grassroots activity.
I am interested in how the Saudi Arabian art scene might be similar to Atlanta. Because Atlanta is in the South, it experiences obstacles I would imagine are similar to your region. London, Berlin, New York City — those are the world’s center art loci. It is always interesting to learn about the cultural climate of an art scene not big enough to be a center locus, and the ways in which the creative communities there rise above that — finding different ways to develop and thrive.
Aldabbagh: Art is not the first thing that comes to most people’s mind when they think Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, the art scene is very grassroots-driven. It comes either from a rebellious and frustrated place, or a soulful kind of inspiration where people have managed to rise above a lot of frustrations common in a conservative society. But, if you speak to anyone in this part of the world, they will tell you that Saudi artists are doing amazing things, even compared to other places in the gulf where there is a lot of government support.
Here, we have to find a place to do things ourselves and to find people we can connect with on that level — and that’s where a lot of the interesting Saudi art has come from over the past decade.
ArtsATL: Your organization, Banafsajeel, is doing just that: providing a place and bringing those people together?
Aldabbagh: “Banafsajeel” translates to the “in the breath of a generation.”
ArtsATL: What led to the formation of this? Was it born out of this frustration you speak of or was it born out of a need? Did you just see a great number of artists and art activists that ought to be combining their forces?
Aldabbagh: I think what you said is spot on. But also, I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else with my life. I got my Masters in Art Business from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London and before that, I did Visual Studies at Harvard University. So, I have always been interested in this.
At Harvard, I learned about Western art history, and through that, about Western society and culture. My favorite class was called “Art in Society.” I realized how directly you could learn a lot about places and their history through the way artists challenge social norms or in a cutting-edge way, move ahead of society — and I loved that. When I came back to Saudi, I started curating shows on the side for a not-for-profit foundation. I soon went back to get my Masters to learn how to be better involved and do something with impact.
Once I got my Masters, I was interested in this kind of space, a not-for-profit for socially driven art. There’s a lot of commercially driven art here — most of it is within galleries — but that’s not what I am interested in. I think most of the creatives here are driven by the same thing that drives me, which is wanting more space for conversations. And sometimes these conversations aren’t an exchange of words. Showing artwork speaks volumes in a different way, and sometimes it resonates even with people you might have a difficult time having an honest conversation with — whether it’s a sensitive topic or whether it is a censored topic (we do have this challenge here).
ArtsATL: Can you talk more about your organization’s mission and the role it plays in the region?
Aldabbagh: We develop art in community. We are different because we are community-driven and we are the only cross-disciplinary-focused platform in the Gulf. We are a non-for-profit, focused on creative collaboration. Exhibitions that I curate have a great level of engagement and interactivity. We like more people to get excited about art and how it connects to their own lives. We do this through interactive events. For example, we held a photography auction with the theme of “dignity”; we have done an interactive design exhibition where you don’t just look at the work but you can touch, listen, smell . . .
One thing that also makes us different than other galleries and organizations is that we work with a larger number of creatives on a voluntary basis. Rather than having exclusive or constrictive contracts with artists as would a gallery, we have programs that people can enroll in, and then through that, they will learn and develop new skills, and then choose to participate in our exhibition or not. That gives them an alternative way to make and show their work without being tied down.
ArtsATL:What is the significance and role of an alternative platform that is modeled on volunteer participation in this region?
Aldabbagh: It keeps us from falling into cliche topics or working with a predetermined agenda. It allows for more freedom in expressing things that we want to talk about.
ArtsATL: Banafsajeel’s latest exhibition, and the subject of the film you will be screening at MOCA GA, is “Tadafuq,” which translates as “Flow,” correct?
Aldabbagh: Yes, the proper name of the exhibition is Tadafuq. It has a heavier pronunciation. It translates as “flow” in English, but in Arabic this word for flow conveys a stronger sense of the word. It’s not at all soft.
ArtsATL: Where did that title come from?
Aldabbagh: Each year we try to work with a different theme, and within that, we develop programs and work on smaller projects that might fit into larger events like Art Dubai or Saudi Design Week. We progress through the year doing research on the topic, and then it culminates in an exhibition that brings together artists and/or designers within the region to showcase their work.
ArtsATL: Can you tell me more about the artists and how they are selected?
Aldabbagh: I will set up interviews or do studio visits — go see the artists in their own kind of space — and come up with something that builds on their work or benefits them. They are mostly emerging artists — I’d say about 75 percent are emerging artists — and they come from the Gulf region, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar. As I mentioned before, being the cultural capital, we have people from different regions here in Saudi Arabia too, so people are from all over.
ArtsATL: Based on your multinational exhibitions and the documentary Seeing Through the Sands, it seems to be a curatorial practice of yours to foster crosscultural exchange. In what ways has this exhibition, connecting the countries of the Gulf coast, been that? And was there a great deal of collaboration?
Aldabbagh: Yes! For the most part, they have collaborated. The hope is that we can connect over possible similarities, to learn from the differences.
ArtsATL: What were some of the ways artists decided to respond to “flow?”
Aldabbagh: We had 38 artists, and their interpretations of “flow” were very diverse. It’s across different mediums: painting, sculpture, installation . . . it’s a little bit of everything. In the film I will be screening at MOCA GA, I chose to focus on three examples. So for example, the artist Khalid Zahid had a bicycle that can be driven both ways; you can’t tell what is the front and what is the back. Most of his work focuses on his country of Saudi and where it is going and how things are developing. He was making a statement on how it is unclear and the direction things are going now. He also did another piece that was a large, deconstructed gas tank; he had the different pieces hanging, suspended in the air.
ArtsATL: I see that some artists took this opportunity to address this idea in reference to the flow of refugees across borders, and others addressed flow in patterns of urban sprawl. I realized how relevant and timely these themes are to the US as well, and how what the Gulf region is experiencing certainly possesses a global resonance.
Aldabbagh: Yes, this is how some of these artists are making a social statement. The work of Ali Cha’ Aban is one example. He is originally Lebanese, grew up in Kuwait, and has worked in different places. He recently moved to Saudi Arabia to be an artist and designer though his background is in Anthropology. He did the design for the catalog.
He takes photos from the news coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis. The piece in the exhibition is a little boy; the neon text, the Arabic writing juxtaposed over top of it, translates loosely as “this too shall pass.” Each piece in his series addresses the different stages of mourning that someone who has been forced to leave their home might experience. This one is a kind of resignation. There has been a lot of buzz about his work, and his own experience, having lived in different places and having visited a lot of refugee camps.