In Saudi Arabia—where the government has wide-ranging censorship laws that closely examine entertainment and the arts—the challenge for local artists has first and foremost been at home. But nevertheless, a new generation of young Saudis have cultivated a solid contemporary scene over the past few years.
In most cities, art traditionally emerged from the underground, before being syphoned from the top. But up and coming Saudi artists are now benefiting from unprecedented state-funded initiatives, in a bid to make of the country a major player in the global art scene.
31-year-old Jeddah native Abdullah Qandeel, who has long-been considered a pioneering artist in Saudi Arabia, is best known for his large-scale abstract oil paintings, which feature heavy-handed use of vibrant shades of yellow, green and red and depict conflicted feelings linked to the shifting cultural climate in the conservative region.
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Brielfy deemed the ‘rebel artist of Saudi Arabia’ (after being arrested for vandalising a hotel room in New York), Qandeel feels responsible and committed to providing a fertile ground for Saudi’s youthquake. Despite his celebrity co-signs, Qandeel has an innately grassroots approach to making art. Now back in Saudi, he’s currently working on developing the wider art community through the development of a huge incubation project in Jeddah called the ‘Creativity Terminal’, which aims to educate and connect the VPN-savvy, globally-minded young artists trying to create bold new aesthetics in Arab art.
We asked Qandeel to share seven top tips on how to make it as a young contemporary artist.
Be serious and write yourself a letter of declaration
Write a letter to yourself. A declaration, so to speak. A commitment to yourself, “The Artist”, and make a vow that you will never break. Mail this letter to yourself from a post office. Once you receive this declaration, keep it somewhere safe in anticipation of your first show. Work hard towards the show and don’t open the letter until you have completed it, and give it your all (you will probably reach many moments of self doubt). If you don’t give it your all, then you’re not being loyal to this declaration. After your first show / exhibit / major project, open the letter, give yourself a congratulatory meal and then take the letter to a frame shop, build a relationship with this shop and frame it. Then hang it in your studio or preferred workspace.
Aim big and shoot
The only way to learn how to swim is by jumping in the water. Personally, I love the thrill of the deep end. Some of you might want to pace yourselves, but if you really want to beat expectations and reach the mountaintop, where your dreams come true, then consider my path. Jump in the deep end and aim big. Don’t hold back, approach MOMA, approach the hegemonies of your industry. Tell them who you are, show them your work with pride and with proper format and presentation. Speak of who you will become and don’t be afraid to appear like an idiot. You will fail, you will fall, but it’s not about not falling, it’s about getting right back up and having the scars. Don’t be ashamed of rejection, it most probably means you’re intimidating the establishment. Good job.
Believe in yourself, be unique
Once you succeed, don’t slow down. Make bigger mistakes. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You have time to absorb major setbacks, most artists die without ever realizing their ambitions. It’s ok to have major setbacks and accumulate debt, that’s how you gain ground. Take your work to the next level and push yourself. Use materials no one uses, use equipment no one uses. You must create a unique proposition for the viewer; people react to mystery and exclusivity. Use oil paints or use whatever high-end medium in your field, but don’t compromise on materials.
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Don’t spend on fun, spend on production
With success it’s easy to ride the wave of “I’m networking to attain new clients”, but you will reach a point where the investment doesn’t equate to the reward, and you get financially stuck. Flying to Freize, Armory, or Basel for Art Basel isn’t always the best strategy to gain foothold. It’s better to invest in new works to produce high quality, breathtaking and unimaginable new art than to travel around. Once you have two years of production under your belt, then smash it.
You don’t want to be 12 years into your career and suddenly find it hard for you to show your works because they’re all over the world or because you don’t have a consolidated database. You want to have one new PDF every year that has a clear cut snapshot of your career. Attention spans are short and only getting shorter with the advent of technological interference in our lives.
Religion and spirituality are important channels for unlocking your potential. No matter your religious faith, find time each day to practice mindfulness and centre yourself. In these moments you will discover clarity of purpose and pride in being.
Be willing to teach others
A true artist has a responsibility to share his gift with others. Be it technique, motivation or presentation, if you have a gift, be willing to share it with other artists. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, but inspiration can be generational, transformational and paradigm shifting.