Steven O’Brien

Saudi’s New Ministry of Culture a Surprise at the 58th Biennale

It becomes harder for me to say anything new about Venice, even in the midst of the Biennale. As ever Venice remains an almost impossible confection; a city of palaces set on pearly water that should not exist, except in the imagination.

Even amongst the glamour of the shining international set I felt I was always looking for something arresting just around the corner of every alley; something that would prick the interest, beyond the glitter and fizz.

So it was wholly intriguing to find that the representatives of Saudi Arabia’s new Ministry of Culture were in Venice for the opening of 58th Biennale. Surprisingly fresh, young and outward – looking, they were eager to explain that Saudi is undergoing an opening  up of the arts, and that in this regard the Kingdom has both national and international aspirations.

I met Dur Kattan, the Ministry’s Director of Communications and PR on the rooftop terrace of the Guggenheim Museum (whose ground floor houses the Futurists). Candidly Dur Kattan outlined the scope and compass of Saudi ambitions for its art and culture. She told me that Saudi is a country of rich cultural treasures with distinct heritage and traditions from each of its thirteen regions. The Ministry of Culture was set up to also address the fact that, hitherto, so much of Saudi’s artistic talent in the creative industries has remained untapped.

Moreover, neither the world, nor Saudi’s themselves, have been able to access this cultural narrative, largely because there has been no promotion of the aesthetic fabric of the Kingdom. Dur Kattan explained that the new Ministry now has funds and a structure that will allow it to preserve, support and promote Saudi artistic utterance, from poetry to painting and from sculpture to music.

This energy was evident in conversation I had with Abdulkarim Alhumaid, the Ministry’s Media Manager and Spokesman. As we watched the lights of boats sweeping down the Grand Canal Abdulkarim told me that a new flowering of Saudi culture is afoot and that he the Ministry of Culture is working to create a thriving cultural sector, where creative endeavour becomes part of everyday Saudi life.

Abdulkarim said that there is also a shrewd aspect to the new Ministry’s ambitions, since Saudi Arabia is trying to diversify in ways that bring jobs outside the traditional sectors of its economy.

This was echoed by Prince Sultan al Saud who sat with us far above the bustle. He explained that his role as consultant to the Ministry of Culture was to articulate the value of arts as intrinsic for the life of a 21st Century economy and public life. Moreover, his conviction is that it is crucial for Saudi Arabia to participate in the global aesthetic exchange, as it would do no good for the Kingdom to merely be the recipient of international art. The world, he said, also needs to see what is coming out of Saudi.

The ancient Greeks had the phrase Eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing,’ and the cultural textures of countries reveals to us that there is more that unifies than divides us. Art is one of our most primal ways of contact, of experiencing those whom we consider to be other and unknowable.

It is perhaps more to do with my own perspective that I viewed much of what I saw in Venice last week as flippant and overly ironic. However, the most impressive conversations I had were with those ardently positive Saudis with their open ideas and optimism.

Words by Steven O’Brien.

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