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The British Council opened its first art exhibition in Saudi Arabia last month

Foreign Secretary uses occasion to praise Muslim contribution to UK

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“Common Ground”, a touring show of photographs documenting the Muslim experience in Britain, South East Asia and the Middle East, was mounted in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in the King Fahd Cultural Centre. The occasion was an unprecedented event, requiring careful explanation of British intentions and months of negotiation.

International art shows are virtually unheard of in Saudi Arabia, especially photographic displays. Saudi Arabia is one of the most difficult countries in which to be a photographer, and Riyadh, its most religiously conservative city. Taking pictures in public, especially of people, is still taboo among Muslims. The freedom enjoyed by British photographers to document the everyday life of Muslim men and women roused interest and envy.

Already seen in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, the exhibition has evolved in each venue, gathering photographers from its region. It was hoped the show in Riyadh would include all 22 exhibitors shown at the Sharjah Art Museum, but in the event this proved too difficult. To the core exhibition of nine British artists, one Saudi Arabian was added to list, Manal Al-Dowayan, born and educated in the Eastern Province. Her studio-based pictures of beautiful, partly veiled young women dominated the show, stirring considerable attention notably among the male journalists.

Regrettably, the politics of culture overshadowed aesthetic appreciation. Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim woman to enter the House of Lords, cut the tape at the women’s only private view on Monday 18 April. The men’s opening the following evening was a grander affair.

Coming in the wake of a week-long celebration of Saudi culture in the UK, Iyad Madani, Minister of Culture and Information, who helped organise the exhibition, spoke of cultural exchange as the means by which we discover what we share. Jack Straw, UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, fortuitously in Riyadh for the second set of bilateral talks with the Saudi government, spoke of the contribution that Muslims had made to cultural life in Britain. In his constituency of Blackburn alone there are 30 mosques. Many Muslim soldiers had died fighting for Britain in World War I, he said. We are two religions, but one common ground, one civilisation, he stressed.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Britain sends photos to Saudi Arabia... '

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