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Saudi women artists make their UK debut at Shift

16 Jul 2017

Just a short walk away from Earl’s Court station, Shift makes a nice trip for anyone exploring Kensington. The exhibition, located at The Mosaic Rooms, is the first of Shubbak’s 2017 festival programme. With an extensive catalogue of around 150 artists and performers, in over 30 venue spaces around London and just over 70 events this year, Shubbak promises nothing short of delivering “a window on contemporary Arab culture”.

Stepping foot into the lavish but humbly sized building, I felt a sense of pride. Shift is an exhibition curated by three Saudi Arabian women showcasing their work centred around home, city and domestic spaces. For two of the artists, this makes their first UK debut.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of curation, both the selection of artists, the quality of their work and the neat layout of the exhibition. A striking piece, Cell Of The City, completed by Zahrah Al-Ghamdi was quick to meet my attention. The installation, which generously covers one side of the wall and finds itself seeping into the floor evokes architectural destruction.  Al-Ghamdi explained the process of making the piece, completing it in four days, which involved using textile and staining them with sand. The strips of fabric are arranged in a way that looks like fringing. At the top of the piece, a bright selection of yellows, pinks, greens and white, transcends into a murky clay brown.

Ghamdi, created something powerfully authentic for me: the replication of memory. For her, each piece of textile represented a cell which contributed to the construction of traditional South West Saudi Arabian architecture. For me, the colours and sandy chaos reminded me of my family’s hometown in Morocco. Her work was able to set an archetypical memory intertwining two different countries, in two different continents, through the simplicity of aesthetics. 

The motif of sand and home finds itself intersecting with Dana Awartani’s work, a video installation piece of herself sweeping away a tessellation of geometrically patterned Arab titles on the floor. Awartani sweeps, wearing a long floaty djelleba. Automatically I am reminded of summer holidays in Morocco observing my aunts in the domestic setting. The appropriately titled piece, I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d Forgotten you, deals with the destruction of memory, as new moments take its place, causing an erasure of self. The act of sweeping becomes a very non-violent way of erasing one’s culture, perhaps in order to assimilate to their new environment. I understood. Alongside the video installation, the gallery also hosts the sand tiles, which are wonderfully fragile and untouched. 

Reem Al-Nasser’s beautifully piercing gaze comes to mind when I recall her explaining the process of the past, present and future in her piece titled, The Silver Plate. An audio and dual screen video installation, with an interactive booklet, made her work a multifaceted experience. On both screens, a woman with brightly coloured henna taps on a silver plate, producing a distinct cyclical rhythm, a sound instinctively known throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Layered on top of the visuals, a soft ASMR-esque voice repeats in Arabic, near and far, its resonance soothing. Al-Nasser’s piece teases the senses, and probes you into finding a calming familiarity of kinship and community.    

As London’s ‘largest biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture’, Shubbak brings something very special into focus – the Arab experience into western society. This exhibition is suited for all, not just the cultured flâneurs of high society. Shubbak festival has an abundant programme running until 16th July, filled with talks, performances, film screenings, literature, visual art, music and more.

Shift exhibition runs until 2nd September at The Mosaic Rooms, Kensington, London. Tues-Sat, 11am-6pm. Find out more at and @shubbakfestival