In the midst of its ongoing crack-down on human rights activists, journalists, and clerics, Saudi Arabia’s decision to permit Saudi artists once again to present their visions at the Venice Biennale Art Exhibition is a striking contrast to the regime’s widespread repression of freedom of speech and expression both inside and outside of its borders.

After an eight-year hiatus, Saudi Arabia is participating in the prestigious Venice Biennale Art Exhibition that opened May 11 and runs through November 24.  The Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), are sponsoring a Saudi Pavilion to showcase the art of female Saudi artist Dr. Zahrah Al Ghamdi as part of the government’s initiative to promote Saudi culture, art, and history on an international scale.

Minister of Culture and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Misk Art Institute Prince Badr Bin Abdullah Bin Farhan inaugurated the Saudi pavilion in May, attended by UAE Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Noura Al Kaabi, and prominent artists and other officials. 

Crown Prince MbS’s Vision 2030, which aims to reduce Riyadh’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop the private sector, includes 80+ major projects such as this one, all financed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.  

The future of Vision 2030 investment looked uncertain after the regime’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The murder triggered international outrage, causing several high-profile CEO’s and political leaders, including the president of the World Bank, U.S. treasury secretary, and CEOs of HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, and the London Stock Exchange, to withdraw from Riyadh’s second investment conference, dubbed “Davos in the Desert.” 

The boycott against doing business with Saudi Arabia, however, appears to have been short-lived, at least with respect to some investors. In April, HBSC resumed business relations with the Kingdom.

The international community has called into question MbS’s so-called reforms amid significant ongoing human rights violations, including the crackdown on women’s rights activists last year who advocated for the right to drive. Even though women in Saudi Arabia can now legally drive, a number of those activists remain in prison today. 

In May, Riyadh sentenced three Saudi Sunni scholars to death based on similar vague charges of “terrorism” related to their public expression.

In April of this year, the Saudi regime executed 37 people on charges of “terrorism.” 33 of the victims were part of the country’s Shia minority, and 11 were charged with espionage for Iran. In May, Riyadh sentenced three Saudi Sunni scholars to death based on similar vague charges of “terrorism” related to their public expression.  

Installation shot of Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdis

Installation shot of Saudi artist Zahrah Al Ghamdis

Al Ouda, for example, had merely tweeted a prayer stating in part, “may God harmonize between their hearts for the good of their people,” an apparent call for a reconciliation among Gulf countries

Many speculate that the Saudi regime’s wave of repression is an effort to squash any attempt to recreate popular uprisings like those seen during the Arab Spring and more recently in Sudan and Algeria.

The illusion of freedom of expression for Saudis remains at the forefront of the Crown Prince’s Vision.

Nevertheless, the illusion of freedom of expression for Saudis remains at the forefront of the Crown Prince’s Vision. The Saudi pavilion at the Venice Biennale, “After Illusion,” presents new works by Jeddah-based land artist Dr. Zahrah Al Ghamdi. Al Ghamdi says that her visual artwork “reflects the memory of past traditional architecture from south western Saudi Arabia and explores this memory with emphasis on poetics.” 

Born in the Hijaz in 1977, Al-Ghamdi uses natural materials that remind her of home, such as earth, sand, clay, water, and leather. She aims to re-engage familiar senses that have changed for her over time in order to evoke tensions between Saudi traditions and encroaching globalization. The title of the installation draws inspiration from a sixth century Arabic poem by Zuhayr bin Abī Sūlmā, in which he describes the difficulty of recognizing his home after being absent for twenty years. 

Last year, the Kingdom had its debut at the International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Architects Abdulrahman and Turki Gazzaz were responsible for the Saudi pavilion’s exhibition, “Spaces in Between,” which explored the urban and social implications of the rapid, oil wealth-fueled expansion of urban centers within Saudi Arabia.

The Venice Biennale brings together world renowned artists, art dealers and critics from around the globe. Known as the “Olympics for art,” the event began in 1895, and has featured the work of celebrated artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Marina Abramović. It also serves as a commercial fair for contemporary visual art exhibits. 

Zahrah Al Ghamdi Art in Venice Biennale Art Exhibition

Zahrah Al Ghamdi Art in Venice Biennale Art Exhibition

This year, Biennale hosts 90 different national pavilions, five of which come from MENA countries: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and the UAE. Under the title, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” the theme of this year’s exhibition draws inspiration from Chinese sayings related to periods of uncertainty, turmoil, and crisis. 

The title seems an oddly fitting one for Saudi Arabia’s return to the Biennale, given the unstable state of internal affairs unfolding in the Kingdom. On the one hand, modernization and development are occurring at a record pace, and on the other, basic rights to free speech, due process, religious practice, and freedom from torture, are being increasingly denied. 

As biennale curator and director of London’s Hayward Gallery, Ralph Rugoff points out, “In an indirect fashion, perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times.’”