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Saudi artist relates the human impact of Mecca’s redevelopment

As part of Sotheby’s Tuesday Talks, Ahmed Mater discussed the modernisation of Islam’s holiest city

The Saudi artist Ahmed Mater talks with Sotheby’s specialist Lina Lazaar about Mecca's redevelopment

Ahmed Mater, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading artists, showed an audience at Sotheby’s London last night, Tuesday 12 August, the rampant development in Mecca that has transformed Islam’s holiest site into a luxury destination. Even the official logo of the municipality features a bulldozer alongside Islamic iconography.

The discussion, part of Sotheby’s Tuesday talks programme covering the Middle Eastern art world, focused on Mater’s experiences in Mecca. He began by showing his latest work, Leaves Fall in all Seasons, which makes use of footage filmed by immigrant workers on their mobiles as they took part in the destruction and rebuilding of the city. “It’s a human archive,” Mater said. Excerpts from the film, not seen previously in the UK, revealed the human beings behind the construction boom, with spectacular footage of a worker astride the golden crescent moon being lifted to the top of the huge, Big Ben-like clock tower, the crowd cheering and whistling.

He went on to describe how he made the “Desert of Pharan” series of photographs that capture the cranes and construction work threatening to overwhelm the site. He contrasted the new luxury hotels with the way in which, at the beginning, the inhabitants of Mecca used to care for the pilgrims in their own houses. “This is an unofficial history of the mass expansion of Mecca; I’ve been living there for almost three years. Permission to photograph has been difficult—some of the religious leaders would like cameras to be destroyed—but the governor of Mecca backed me in this project,” Mater said.

Initially a medical doctor, he argues that a more holistic approach is required to integrate communities during the modernisation of Mecca, and Western architectural models are an uneasy fit. Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster were among 18 high-profile architects invited in 2010 to take part in a competition to redesign the haram, the holy centre of Mecca. The results may have remained paper architecture, but the local firm that ended up with the contract works very much within the Western tradition.

How the city copes with the annual influx of at least 15 million pilgrims, increasing by 7% a year, is a key question. Lina Lazaar, Sotheby’s international contemporary art specialist who moderated the talk, said that this is the reason for the development, but she also emphasised the extortionate cost—$3,000 a night—of a room in the luxury hotels (there is a Hilton among them) next to the holy of holies, the Ka’aba square. “These are the most expensive rooms: I call them rooms with a view. They are no solution to the increase in the numbers of pilgrims,” Mater said, pointing to an image of a hotel room with a floor-length window looking down dramatically on the Ka’aba. The impact of this makeover will reach far beyond the pilgrims and the citizens of Mecca, he believes, and will influence Islamic cities around the world, but he has seen a change in attitude in the last year. Partly due to the influence of local activists, some of them quite young, and support from a few high-ranking princes, a conservation movement is getting going.

Finally, he showed some poignant works, slide images taken for View-Master stereoscopes since the 1960s. The early ones are very human, pictures of pilgrims from close up; the latest is all scenes of skyscrapers and modernity.

The Art Newspaper is the media sponsor for Sotheby’s Middle Eastern art talks.

Correction: in the original version of this story we incorrectly reported that the talk was organised with Ibraaz, the publishing arm of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation

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