Saudi artists find common threads with Utah

Desert, salt and religion are themes in “Cities of Conviction” exhibit, opening at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artist Balqis Alrashed born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and raised in Beirut talks about her art installation using salt water from the Great Salt Lake painted on black cotton that is part of a new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art's entitled "Cities of Conviction," with works of contemporary art by artists from Saudi Arabia.

There’s an “interesting binary” in the phrase “Saudi artist,” said Balqis Al Rashad, who is one.

“The word ‘artist’ means someone who is liberated,” said Al Rashad, a Riyadh-born artist nearing the end of a six-week residency at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. She acknowledged that “we have certain limitations” in Saudi Arabia, though she argues that every culture places some social or commercial restrictions on its artists.

Works by 19 contemporary Saudi artists are featured in a new exhibit, “Cities of Conviction,” opening Friday at UMOCA, at 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City. The touring show, organized by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, is the first all-Saudi exhibit to display at UMOCA.

Several of the artworks stress the common ground between the land and cultures of Saudi Arabia and Utah.

Take Al Rashad’s as-yet-untitled installation work, a room in which panels of black cotton are suspended over pools of salt water. Salt has dried and crystallized on the cloths, forming unique patterns of white against the black backdrop. A layer of salt covers the room’s floor, and museumgoers are encouraged to take off their shoes before they step on it.

“Salt is a really magical material,” Al Rashad said.

Salt, she noted, is integral to Saudi and Utah history. Utah pioneers persevered and built a community in sight of the Great Salt Lake, while salt domes in the Saudi desert marked the location of petroleum, making salt deposits “an indicator of invisible power.”

Another artist, Moath Alofi, has photographed nearly 100 abandoned mosques and prayer rooms near his hometown of Medina for his work “The Last Tashahud.” The photos, displayed in rotation on four video screens, show landscapes similar to Utah’s desert.

One wall of the museum is dominated by a photograph by artist Ahmed Mater, an aerial view of the Al Haramain Highway leading into the holy city of Mecca. The view of the desert in the foreground, a city in the middle distance and mountains behind it resembles what could be photographed over Interstate 15 looking east to Salt Lake City.

One of Rashed Al Shashai’s three works, ”Shortcut,” depicts in glowing white light what Muslims believe to be the first drawing made by the prophet Muhammad.

It’s a straight horizontal line, with diagonal lines branching from it — symbolizing, Al Shashai said through an interpreter, ”other paths that can take you off the path of the righteous.” That parable of Islam is similar to the “iron rod” story in the Book of Mormon.

Yusuf Alahmad’s contribution to the exhibit juxtaposes old culture on the new. He has painted three skateboard decks with Arabic calligraphy and patterns in bright nontraditional colors.

The skateboards show, Alahmad said, “that two existing cultures can coexist and that contradictions aren’t a bad thing.”

“Cities of Conviction” will be on display at UMOCA through Jan. 6. An opening reception is set for Friday, 7 to 9 p.m., with light refreshments and a cash bar, for a suggested donation of $8. For more information, visit www.utahmoca.org.

‘Cities of Conviction’<br>The touring exhibit “Cities of Conviction,” featuring works by 19 contemporary Saudi artists.<br>Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City<br>When • Opens Friday, Aug. 25, and runs through Jan. 6<br>Hours • Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; open until 9 p.m. on Fridays<br>Admission • Suggested $5 donation<br>Reception • Friday, Aug. 25, 7 to 9 p.m., with light refreshments and a cash bar; suggested $8 donation

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