Land artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi’s tactile encounters in Venice
Saudi Arabia returns to the Venice Biennale after an eight-year hiatus with an installation by the Jeddah-based artist
Saudi Arabian artist Zahrah Al Ghamdi spends weeks assembling site-specific works in natural materials such as sand, rocks and leather. The Jeddah-based artist is part of an all-female cast who focus on memory, nostalgia, and the tensions between Saudi traditions and globalisation in their work. An A-lister among regional collectors, Al Ghamdi also headlines in prestigious venues such as the Jameel Arts Centre and Alserkal Avenue in Dubai.
In preparation for her Venice Biennale presentation at the Sale d’Armi, a 15th-century weapons depot, Al Ghamdi spent months cutting, sewing, shredding, boiling, drying and burning local leather into 52,000 abstract pieces. They reference random organic forms, Aseeri ornaments and local architecture of Al-Baha, her birth village in the southwest of the country.
Entitled After Illusion, the installation is inspired by an ancient Arabic poem by Zuhayr bin Abī Sūlmā (520-609), in which he describes his struggle to recognise his home after being away for 20 years. Al Ghamdi left Saudi to complete a Masters and a PHD at Coventry University before returning to Jeddah in 2009, so it’s a sentiment she understands. Today, her village is almost in ruins.
Leather and cotton reference a childhood spent herding sheep with her grandfather, and last year, for the annual Shubbak Festival, she created an installation of lines of sand, dirt and inconspicuous objects sourced her village at the British Museum. In the 2017 edition of the festival, the artist participated in the UK’s first all-women show of artists from Saudi Arabia. §