19 Mar 2016 - 18 Sep 2016
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery


Against the backdrop of the US Presidential election, renowned Saudi artist, Ahmed Mater presented his first U.S. solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The exhibition explored economic, cultural and urban change in the  Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. ‘Symbolic Cities’ was on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery from 19 March - 18 September 2016.

Today, Saudi Arabia looms large in the collective American consciousness, eliciting effusive intrigue and occluded by misinformation in equal measure. These exterior narratives, often spun by media or politicians, are in flux; so too the perspective from the opposite end of the telescope – from inside looking out. By all accounts, it is a kingdom in rapid, irrepressible political, economic and social transformation.

As a young boy, the artist Ahmed Mater stood on the roof of his rural home, holding an antenna to the sky in search of music and dancing (banned on Saudi TV at that time, via a signal from Yemen or across the red-sea to Egypt; now he has easy access to the thoughts and ephemera of other cultures via the internet; it is a very different world. Yet, this swollen access demands its own negotiations; truths are lain bare as unilaterally as untruths and it is left to the reader, viewer, listener, online seeker on both sides of the border to make their own judgements amidst an overload of  conflicting information.

For the first time in the U.S. capital, the works of Ahmed Mater (b. 1979)  were presented with a solo exhibition of his sculptural works, photographs and videos. These perceptive documentary journeys opened a new window to the  geographical heart of Islam. ‘Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater’ presents unbiased visions from these unfamiliar territories. These are taut terrains riven by tension as traditional foundations confront and elide with contemporary life. Inside the frame, Mater captures the trauma of rapid development, seeks lost landscapes once familiarly navigated and maps the strange topography of vast empty deserts set obliquely against overcrowdeded, thronging cities. Unapologetic and honest, these  representations of life in the Kingdom are exposed for American viewers.

Mater is not only a leading artist in Saudi Arabia, but also a pioneer of  exchange. In this exhibition, he invited the American public to approach with open minds. ‘Symbolic Cities’ demands a deeper respect and a more nuanced engagement  through immersive, experiential works which generously encourage us to move  away from a divisive sense of ‘them’ towards a richer and truer  understanding of ‘us’.

“Mater brings the rigor of his training as a physician — as well as unparalleled access — to gather frank observations of his own time and place,” said exhibition curator Carol Huh, the Freer|Sackler’s curator for contemporary art. “The resulting imagery is straightforward and striking, while his newest research-based project presents another fascinating shift in his use of the photographic medium.”

Featured Artists

The exhibition is being presented in collaboration with Culturunners in  partnership with Art Jameel. 

About Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the  nation’s museum of Asian art. It contains one of the most important  collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art  of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler. The Freer Gallery of Art, which will be closed during this exhibition, is scheduled to reopen in spring 2017 with modernized technology  and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and  Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium. The Freer|Sackler Gallery is open every day between: 10 am–5:30 pm.

About Culturunners

Developed in collaboration with an international network of artists and institutions from the Middle East, Europe and the United States, CULTURUNNERS is an unconventional and independent model of cultural exchange and production, one which combines the localized rituals of an artist road trip with the far-reaching power of communications technology.  CULTURUNNERS prioritizes direct encounters and storytelling, trusting in the power of art to inspire empathy and uncover counter narratives across physical and psychological borders.

Since CULTURUNNERS launched in 2014, artists and curators from the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, UK, Turkey, Bahrain, Kuwait, Palestine, Syria and Morocco have participated in programs at The Rothko Chapel in Houston,  Texas; Louisiana State University; The Middle East Institute in Washington  DC; ISCP Residencies in Brooklyn, The Armory Show and Columbia University in New York, MIT in Boston, the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

While travelling with CULTURUNNERS, artists take part in exhibitions, talks and workshops with partner institutions; have full use of a state- of-the-art studio featuring digital and traditional materials and  equipment; and broadcast artists’ ‘Dispatches’ from the road via CULTURUNNERS' interactive website.

About Art Jameel
Art Jameel, one of Community Jameel’s Initiatives, fosters and promotes contemporary art and creative entrepreneurship across the MENAT region. In partnership with arts organizations worldwide, Art Jameel is developing  two arts centres and cultural exchange programmes to encourage networking and knowledge sharing.

Art Jameel is the founding partner of Edge of Arabia, The Crossway Foundation, Jeddah Art Week, and The Archive. In partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it awards the biannual Jameel Prize  for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic traditions. Additional projects include: Art Jameel Photography Award; Jeddah Sculpture Museum, a public park established in collaboration with Jeddah Municipality; Jameel Arts Education at schools; the House of Traditional Arts in Jeddah and the Art Jameel Programme for Traditional Arts and Crafts in Fustat, Cairo, both developed in partnership with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London.

Community Jameel was established in 2003 to promote positive social change, and has been undertaking this through the establishment of long-term partnerships with international institutions, and the creation of  initiatives in the fields of Job Creation, Global Poverty Alleviation, Arts & Culture, Education & Training, Health & Social, and Food & Water Security.

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