‘Rome chose me,’ says Saudi artist on breakthrough Italian exhibition

The 4th Century Arch of Janus (L) and the Palazzo Rhinoceros (R), the new building of the Alda Fendi-Esperimenti Foundation dedicated to arts, are pictured. (File/AFP) (File/AFP)
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Updated 24 October 2020

‘Rome chose me,’ says Saudi artist on breakthrough Italian exhibition

  • “Rome chose me and not vice versa. This idea wants to be a bridge between cultures,” Fahad told Arab News
  • He could not be in Rome for the opening of the exhibition, which is open to visitors until Dec. 10

ROME: Saudi artist Sultan bin Fahad has chosen Rhinoceros, an art gallery in Rome’s historic heart, for his first solo show.
The exhibition, “Frequency,” is staged in a 15th-century building recently renovated by French architect Jean Nouvel, and includes six installations featuring light, incense, shadows, music and sounds. Each piece describes a spiritual journey to modernity through many cultures, but one that is firmly linked to Islam.
“Rome chose me and not vice versa. This idea wants to be a bridge between cultures,” Fahad told Arab News from Los Angeles, where he lives. He could not be in Rome for the opening of the exhibition, which is open to visitors until Dec. 10.
“Each of my creations is specific. I wanted to tell a concept that was understood and expressed by the surrounding place,” the artist said. Over the years he collected precious antique pieces from Makkah and Madinah which he found all over the world, including some metallic pieces which had gone missing in 1979. He shot videos and recorded sounds, and used everything in the artwork that describes what he sees as the human journey toward a sacred temple of feelings.
The exhibition includes “Been There,” a piece with four ancient stones inscribed in Arabic interacting with a large plate of luminescent glass. Then comes “If Stone Could Speak,” with white marble works from Makkah. A video is projected showing men and women gathered in prayer.
Another work, “Possession,” shows an image of the hands of men and women trying to get closer to an elusive God, trying to touch the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
“I filmed those people and I was interested to understand why they were doing those gestures. They were trying to reach the divine. I thought it was moving,” Fahad said.
“The Verse of The Throne” contains a projection of a verse from the Holy Qur’an in front of six bowls, with water serving as an element of purification. Then comes “The White Noise,” represented in two immersive rooms, associated by the artist with the prayers of Makkah pilgrims.
Fahad said the exhibition looks to “involve all the senses to create a real experience, going beyond a visual experience for the visitor.”
In this sense, his works represent the place where anthropological concepts were born and became infused by Greek, Latin and Eastern cultures.
In fact, in the Arabian Gulf, humans once measured their existence through the loss of their relatives, creating a cult of the dead, which is reflected in Fahad’s work.
The artist is waiting to see what the future has in store. “I have no plans so far. I am so happy that I could produce something in 2020 due the the difficult time the entire world is experiencing. Let us hope that the situation will evolve for the better,” he said.

Saudi conceptual artist Filwa Nazer discusses highlights from her career so far 

Updated 12 April 2024

Saudi conceptual artist Filwa Nazer discusses highlights from her career so far 

DUBAI: For as long as she can remember, the conceptual Saudi artist Filwa Nazer — who was born in Swansea, Wales, in the 1970s but grew up in the Kingdom — has always loved art. She says that she spent her time as a youngster drawing, painting, writing notes, and reflecting on life in a Saudi Arabia which, back then, lacked art education. “As a young artist, you don’t realize that all the challenges you face eventually inform your creative process,” Nazer tells Arab News.   

In the 1990s, Nazer moved to Milan, where she studied fashion design and later trained with the acclaimed Italian fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré.  

“He was quite an intimidating character, so I was a little bit in awe of him, but I was fascinated by the fact that he was an architect originally. His white shirts were quite structural,” says Nazer.  

Saudi artist Filwa Nazer — who was born in Swansea, Wales, in the 1970s but grew up in the Kingdom — has always loved art. (Supplied)

At the Ferré company, she was particularly drawn to the archival department, where all kinds of vintage garments were stored. She also learned about embroidery. Those experiences feed into her recent work, which focuses heavily on fabrics, but with an emotional touch.  

There is something sentimental about Nazer’s artwork, which is inspired by emotions, spaces, life transitions and memories. “For me,” she says, “the work always comes from a personal place.” 

Here, Nazer talks us through six significant works, from a large-scale installation in the desert to an intimate fabric piece addressing women’s bodies.  


‘The Skin I Live In’  

This installation from 2019 was one of the first ever textile works that I made, setting me on this journey of working with textiles. It’s two meters high and looks like a big skirt from the front. Inside, there are layers of embroidered muslin cotton, which is cut according to the floor plans of my flat in London. Covering the muslin is a layer of green polyethylene — a type of plastic mesh that you see in construction sites. I use these materials in a conceptual and symbolic way. I wanted to see if I could use sewing as a language and create landscapes of emotions through stitching. This work was about a particular time when I needed healing and protection, and that space provided a container for me to explore all of that.   


‘Preserving Shadows’  

This was part of Desert X AlUla this year. I’d never done something on this scale before — and in such a challenging environment like AlUla desert, which made me feel blocked. But I like to get out of my comfort zone and see what can happen if I work in a different way. Through my research, I came across this paragraph about plants in the desert and the supernatural. Suddenly, there was a lightbulb in my head and I started thinking that my blockage and discomfort in this environment could become my concept. I wanted to create a journey that is about a moment of transition; you walk through shadows and, as you walk, you are ascending and the shadows recede until you reach the end. It’s a journey of metaphorically overcoming darkness. 


‘The Hands Want To See, The Eyes Want To Caress’ 

This body of work was shown in an exhibition called “Saudi Modern” in 2021. A few artists were commissioned by Bricklab to create artworks that responded to a particular building from the modernist era of architecture in Jeddah. I created these five pieces as my response to a private residence, the Bajnaid House, in Al-Kandarah area. It was the epitome of modernist, trendy Jeddah in the Fifties and Sixties. It’s completely lost that status now. The works kind of explore what happens to a space or a house as it degrades — as it’s abandoned. Some of these pieces are about how I connected to the aesthetics of the house and the other pieces, the ones with the wood and fabric, are about how this house made me feel and how my body reacted to it. It asks: “Is a discarded house not attractive anymore? Or do you find beauty in the way it is now?” 

‘Five Women’   

This was a very special series. It was commissioned for the first edition of the Diriyah Biennale in Riyadh in 2021. It literally tells five stories of five Saudi women from my generation — women that I have spoken to privately and anonymously. Each woman told me a story and gave me a dress that related to one particular story about an event that changed this woman’s relationship with her body. The stories were about pain, coming of age, and the flamboyancy of showing off beauty in society. This work was also shown in the Lyon Biennale in 2022.  

‘Missing A Rib’ (2019) 

This 2019 piece is about my house in Jeddah. It’s a transparent sculptural piece, within it hangs a structure that resembles a broken rib cage. Prior to the conception of this work, I injured my ribs and was in bed for such a long time. Besides alluding to the symbolism of Adam and Eve, with Eve being created from Adam’s rib, it also connects to the theme of exploring spaces under the influence of patriarchy. The white strips (a type of thread-pulling technique decorating the hemlines of undergarments of men in Saudi) are a metaphor for masculine energy controlling a woman’s space. 



This is one of my latest works that I made for Selma Feriani Gallery in 2023. It’s part of a seven-piece series that explores patterns of personal garments in relation to personal living spaces. You can see the outline of a floor plan. The red patches are made of layered stitching. I revisited that kind of abstract stitching that I use symbolically as landscapes of emotion. Nevertheless, when you look at it; the duality of it gives it the feel of a body or a chest. The green that I always use is symbolic of Saudi Arabia, so it links to society and environment. It’s quite philosophical in exploring space, but also in relating to emotions, memories and socio-political influences. 

Arab-American Heritage Month: LA-based artist Aneesa Shami Zizzo talks tactile medium of fabrics

Updated 12 April 2024

Arab-American Heritage Month: LA-based artist Aneesa Shami Zizzo talks tactile medium of fabrics

  • The second in this year’s series focusing on contemporary Arab-American artists in honor of Arab-American Heritage Month

DUBAI: Aneesa Shami Zizzo is a Los Angeles-based artist and researcher who has devoted herself to the tactile medium of textiles and fabrics. She grew up watching her grandmothers quilt and crochet. “I feel like it’s there in the DNA. I love hand-sewing and the feel of the fabric,” she tells Arab News.  

Born in Kansas to a Lebanese father and an American mother, Zizzo says her creativity was “fostered at a very early age.”  

“I knew I really wanted to be an artist; I remember falling in love with this ability to create something from nothing,” she says. ,

Aneesa Shami Zizzo’s ‘Goldmine.’ (Supplied)

As an adolescent, she was drawing, painting and making collages (the latter became “a main outlet for a lot of teenage angst and anxieties”). It was at the Kansas City Art Institute that she first began to focus on fiber art. “It really speaks to me on a subconscious level,” she says of the medium.  

Her textile works are put together using scraps. “I use a lot of industry waste,” she explains. “It’s incredible the amount of textile waste there is in this world. It’s frightening, quite frankly.”   

From her youth, Zizzo remembers her Arab grandmother’s cooking and grandfather’s furniture-making skills — he once designed a desk for her. But she says she has only recently started to incorporate her Arab ancestry into her work, which has always been influenced by personal memories and close family members. 

“Growing up in Kansas, post 9/11, it was hard being Arab-American and embracing my heritage,” she says. “Now, I’m trying to embrace it and bring it into my daily life, especially since I have a two-year-old son, Yuri, and I want to share that with him.” 

In 2017, Zizzo visited Lebanon. “It was so amazing to be there in person and see where my dad grew up,” she recalls. “We saw the country and toured in a little bus with all my cousins together. We went to Baalbek. It changed my life. Coming home from all of that, I’m changed.” She referenced the ancient Roman columns of Baalbek in her work “Baba’s Goldmine.” 

“It was my first and only trip to Lebanon,” Zizzo, who will soon take on a residency at the Arab American National Museum in Michigan, says. “I wanted to commemorate it.”  

Saudi artists join roster for prestigious Sotheby’s auction 

Updated 11 April 2024

Saudi artists join roster for prestigious Sotheby’s auction 

  • Highlights from Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Middle East sale, which runs April 11-25 

DUBAI: Here are the highlights from Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Middle East sale, which runs Apr. 11-25.


Abdulhalim Radwi 


Radwi’s ability “to merge popular culture and sentiments with newly acquired artistic techniques serves as a precursor to contemporary Saudi art today,” Sotheby’s states in its auction notes. Radwi’s mother — an artist herself — is credited with nurturing his ability as a child, but it was in Rome in the 1960s that his skills truly flourished as he began to explore abstraction. He is recognized as one of the first Saudis to pursue further education abroad, and in the seven years he lived in Italy, he exhibited nine times. When he returned to his homeland in 1968, he began to teach art. “Though absorbed by Western artistic discourses, Radwi did not stray from local heritage and traditions, and instead invoked his own narrative of the Arab world through cubism and expressionism, setting himself apart from his contemporaries,” the auction notes state. 

This piece, according to Sotheby’s is “exemplary” of Radwi’s later work, “which became more engaged with the artist’s cultural identity.” It depicts the old neighborhoods of Saudi towns “through a futurist scene blending traditional Ottoman architecture with contemporary influences.”  

The notes continue: “The very essence of his works lies not in their physicality but in the emotions they trigger.”  


Taha Al-Sabban  

‘Untitled (Boats)’ 

Al-Sabban was born in Makkah in 1948, just eight years after Abdulhalim Radwi. The latter became something of a mentor to Al-Sabban, having, according to Sotheby’s “a profound effect” on his development as an artist, selecting him for one of the first exhibitions at the Jeddah Centre of Fine Arts. Encouraged by Radwi, Al-Sabban, too, studied abroad, first in Beirut and then in Rome. 

“Al-Sabban recognized the cultural necessity of art in Europe, which lent itself to his enduring fascination with his own culture and traditions. The holy city of Mecca, his birthplace, and the ancient city of Jeddah, to which he relocated, are central influences to the artist’s oeuvre; he derived inspiration from the rich history and variety of the people that he encountered in the city, its rituals, landscape, and social life,” the auction notes state. This expressionistic work was produced while he lived in Jeddah, where he had developed a deep love for the sea. “Here, he captures in abstract the nature of the ocean through a cool, deep palette and vertical energy, as if the forms rise, swaying, from the sea floor.” 


Inji Efflatoun 

‘Untitled (Baking)’ 

Efflatoun was an important figure in Egyptian culture not just for her artworks, but for her social activism. As a young adult, she shunned her privileged aristocratic background, joining several left-wing organizations, and promoting anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist causes. “Her political convictions are mirrored in her compositions, depicting the predicaments of Egyptians under social inequalities,” Sotheby’s states. 

In 1959, Efflatoun was imprisoned as part of a crackdown on communism in Egypt. Upon her release four years later, she continued to paint, but produced less overtly political work. However, as Sotheby’s notes, and as this 1971 work shows, “she persisted in representing the working class and its living conditions, the one cause which always animated her.” 


Mohamed Hamidi  


This veteran painter is considered one of Morocco’s finest artists. He studied in France before returning to teach in his homeland, where he took part in the seminal “Manifesto” exhibition in Marrakech in 1969, as one of the co-founders of the Moroccan Association of Plastic Arts. 

Morocco’s Loft Art Gallery says of the artist, “The whole of Hamidi's work focuses on the body, whose representation he pushes to the limits of abstraction with the use of increasingly refined forms. He demonstrates a keen interest in African art and its symbols. Bright colors also characterize his work.” 


Faik Hassan 

‘Untitled (The Three Wise Men)’ 

Recognized as a central figure in Iraqi contemporary art, Hassan’s work, Sotheby’s states, is “marked by technical skill and variation through a vast exploration of stylistic genres, Hassan has been labelled a primitivist, an impressionist, and a cubist,” according to the auction notes. “His exploration of styles prompted a break with academic restrictions. He is most commonly known for his realistic depictions of everyday life in Iraq. His works are dominated by Iraqi villagers, laborers, horsemen, and landscapes, all conveyed with an emotional fragility, regardless of style.” 


Tarek Al-Ghoussein 

‘K Files – 655’ 

This work is from the late Kuwaiti artist’s “K Files” series, which, according to The Third Line gallery in Dubai, “documents found material from family albums, antique shops, the Internet and other sources in an ongoing process. The performative photographs feature interactions between the artist and sites of grandness and importance in an attempt to track significant places in Kuwait’s development.” 


Chant Avedissian 

‘Tahiya Carioca (no 45)’  

Much of Avedissian’s work focuses on figures from Cairo’s “Golden Age,” although the vibrant images are inspired by the often-dark nationalism of those times. In this work, Sotheby’s states, “the artist’s nostalgia manifests itself through an image of Tahiya Carioca, the Egyptian belly dancer and film actress who is a household name across the Middle East. Carioca’s life intertwined with the forces of liberation and was filled with art and rebellion. Avedissian deploys sophisticated stencils to readapt a popular picture of Carioca. In doing so, he linked himself directly to media imagery from the mid-20th century.” 

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibit explores human nature through animal fables

Updated 09 April 2024

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibit explores human nature through animal fables

DUBAI: The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s newest exhibition has a lesson or two to teach about flawed human behavior in a light-hearted way.

On view until July 21, “From Kalila wa Dimna to La Fontaine” recounts a variety of timeless fables told through animals, from turtles to lions, whose stories explore themes of friendship, vanity and revenge, among other moral issues. “I use animals to teach men,” the famed 17th century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, one of the main stars of the show, once said.

'Traveling Through Fables.' (Supplied)

The exhibition tells the story of these these memorable fables through 133 objects, many of which are from the Bibliotheque nationale de France’s collection, including delicate and multilingual manuscripts, colorful ceramics and other art objects. There is a universal element to the show, which demonstrates how such stories, suitable for both children and adults, have transcended continents, languages and generations.

“In a way, this exhibition is very Louvre Abu Dhabi material,” the museum’s director, Manuel Rabate, told Arab News. “In the sense that it’s about traveling stories. They were born in India, traveled through the Arab world and connected the East and the West. So, it was really made for us.”

'Traveling Through Fables.' (Supplied)

According to the exhibition’s curator, Annie Vernay-Nouri, such tales originated in India, compiled in the Panchatantra (The Five Treatises), a Sanskrit literary collection that dates back to 200 B.C.

One of the stories is about two swans offering their talkative turtle friend a chance to fly with them. The swans carried a stick, which the turtle held on to with its mouth. Because the turtle spoke during flight, it fell and met its end. Another tale is that of a dog that held on to its bone meal. The dog passed by a river, admiring its own reflection in the water, only to drop his prize in the river.

'Traveling Through Fables.' (Supplied)

In the 8th century Arab-Islamic world, the stories of the Panchatantra were translated by a key personality of the exhibition, Ibn Al-Muqaffa’.

His famous adaptation was called “Kalila wa Dimna,” based on two speaking jackals that acted as both characters and narrators. This collection resonated with Arabic, Persian and Turkish-speaking audiences.

‘The First Omen’ puts a women-led spin on horror classic

Updated 09 April 2024

‘The First Omen’ puts a women-led spin on horror classic

LOS ANGELES: Set to hit cinemas across Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, “The First Omen” marks the sixth installment in the famed horror series.

Set before the 1976 original fan favorite, the new film marks Arkasha Stevenson’s feature film directorial debut and stars Nell Tiger Free, Charles Dance, Bill Nighy and Ralph Ineson.

“The First Omen” follows a young American woman who is sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church. While in Italy, she encounters a darkness that causes her to question her faith and uncovers a terrifying conspiracy, according to the movie’s log line.

“I think it's just wonderful having females at the epicenter of these fantastic horror films,” Free said in an interview with Arab News.

“So often the women were used as bait in these horror movies or used as some sort of gratuitous relief for the male audience. And now they're here and they're taking control and they're at the epicenter of all of it. And it's just it's just a wonderful thing to see,” she added.

"The First Omen" brings chilling and controversial scenes reminiscent of the original to the silver screen. Early reviews laud its sound and cinematography and thoughtful discussion of the dangers of fanaticism.

“There's loads of little moments of symbolism in the movie that echo the beginning. The opening scene is also an homage to the first movie, all of our fantastical deaths and crazy violent moments are all very much thematically a nod to the original,” Free noted, referring to the Richard Donner-directed original that follows a married man who agrees to switch his wife's stillborn baby with an orphaned infant, opening the way for a series of chilling events. 

British icon Nighy shared the cast and crew’s aims when making the horror flick.

“Someone who saw it in London said, ‘I was traumatized.’ Well, that's pretty much what we're shooting for. So if you want to get traumatized, it's not so much about the themes —  it's more about the trauma and being stunned by horror,” he said.

“The people that like to make an appointment with fear actually pay money to get scared. What better way than to do it with a lot of other people? Because then it's like then it's like frightened ‘squared’ … then it's a collective howl of horror,” he added.