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Hot, dry and full of religious folks — new art show draws parallels between Saudi Arabia and Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Just as Utah’s reputation as home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is regularly mischaracterized within the American media, a new exhibition at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art argues that Islam, too, is often in the crosshairs of public misunderstanding.

Curated by Jared Steffensen, “Cities of Conviction” — the state’s first-ever exhibition of contemporary Saudi Arabian artists — fights the urge to treat Islamic culture as a monolith, instead relishing in the diverse voices of both male and female artists and their collective experiences.

With often the purest of intentions, museums have long crafted exhibitions on “Middle Eastern art” hoping to introduce American audiences to new visual and cultural traditions. By reducing the artistic pedigree of such a vast geographical region however, such exhibitions greatly simplify the diverse voices that exist in each of the many nations in the region.

“Cities” proffers a nuanced view, one that complicates rather than solidifies one’s understanding of the nation to which these artists call home. For one, the show evidences an unyielding array of artistic experimentation that succeeds in challenging and enticing the viewer at every turn.

Rashed Al Shashai’s mammothly sized and colorfully adorned installation “Heaven’s Door” stands as an eye-catching spectacle. Each piece of the three-sectioned installation is fashioned into a signature Islamic pointed arch. Islamic arches of this kind are replete with exhaustively detailed mosaics or floral designs and adorn the facades of grand palatial fortresses and mosques. Here, Shashai replaces traditional Islamic patterns with kitchen appliances, varying in shape, pattern and color to form an equally dazzling feast for the eyes. By re-appropriating ordinary domestic items into a sacred arrangement, Shashai spectacularly comments on the humble and everyday nature of divine inspiration.

Correspondingly, Shanshai’s “Delicious,” (2015) is a spirited evocation of the regularity of religious worship. The sculpture, a rolled prayer carpet, is spliced into pieces, evoking a Swiss Roll in a commentary on the “cultural consumption of culture,” according to the museum label.

Similarly, Arwa Alneami’s “Never Never Land” (2013) forces Western viewers to address their preconceived notions of Islamic culture. Alneami’s video installation and accompanying images depict Saudi women, donning black full-bodied abayas, hijabs and niqabs, driving bumper cars at an amusement park. While their dark, full-bodied attire ordinarily commands a rather stark reverence, the playful action of driving the bumper cars renders each portrayal enchantingly contradictory. For Alneami, the act of driving is itself worthy of contemplation, for here these women are able to perform an act expressly forbidden to them in their daily lives.

Elsewhere, much of the exhibition explores the power of place in defining religious and personal identity. Curator Steffensen sees this as a powerful linkage to the Latter-day Saint experience in Utah.

Akin to the ancient cities of Saudi Arabia, Salt Lake City’s grid radiates from the sacred temple at its heart, informing and guiding the movement of the faithful.

Abdulnasser Gharem’s “Road to Makkah” combines multimedia materials to mimic a large road sign en route to the sacred city of Makkah. Divided into brightly colored sections with both Arabic and English text, one portion reads “Muslims Only,” while the other “For Non-Muslims.” Evoking the discriminatory verbiage of America’s segregationist past, this work forges an unlikely connection across continents and cultures.

In all of its complexity, “Cities of Convictions” cautiously reminds viewers of the importance of tolerance in these politically charged times where it may be easier to form stereotypes of cultures foreign to our own rather than relishing in the contradictions that make a nation like Saudi Arabia unique among their Middle Eastern peers.

If you go …

What: “Cities of Conviction: Saudi Contemporary Art”

Where: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple

When: Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday; show runs through Jan. 5

Phone: 801-328-4201


Scotti Hill is an art historian and law student at S.J. Quinney College of Law, where she specializes in intellectual property. She's taught courses in art history at Westminster College and the University of Utah and works as a freelance art critic