Ithra participates in Islamic Arts Biennale with 15 works

Topics related to islamic art are very close to people's hearts: Farah Abushullaih

January 24, 2023

By Aljohara Zarea

JEDDAH — The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) is participating in the Islamic Arts Biennale with 15 artworks that range from a mixture of contemporary and Islamic arts.

Speaking to Saudi Gazette, the head of Ithra Museums, Farah Abushullaih, said Ithra's exhibition — A Journey of Understanding — at the Islamic Arts Biennale is considered an important collaboration that they have made with the Biennale, which is the first program of its kind in the world and is extremely significant for the future generations of Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Ithra's exhibition, which is based on audience feedback from around the Kingdom, holds 15 pieces from the Ithra art collection, most notably the almost 150-year-old kiswa. The piece entered the Ithra collection through a recent acquisition in 2022 and is being displayed for the first time in the exhibition, Abushullaih confirmed.

The Kiswa (holy Ka’aba cover) and the Sitarah that covers the Ka’aba door, which is a 595x300 cm, are made from black silk with red, beige and green silk appliqués, and are embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton thread padding. It is known that the Kiswa is mostly not colored like this. One of the visitors who were impressed with the work said this is the first time he got to know that the Ka’aba cover can be colored with something other than black.

Abushullaih noted that "Kiswa” is one of the most prominent art pieces that hold high value in the Ithra collection.

There is also an interesting mix of contemporary and Islamic arts, such as the Huwa Allah (He is God) artwork that holds the modern perspectives of Lulwah Al-Hammoud, a Saudi national. The work highlights significant Islamic art patterns and how they fit into a more modern perspective today.

Moreover, the Arms and Armor piece ages back to the late 80s century and beyond. This piece has been in Ithra collection previously for a couple of years, but this is the first time ithra exhibited it for the public, Abushullaih confirmed.

Ithra’s exhibition in the Biennale of Islamic Arts, which kicked off in Jeddah on January 23 and will continue through April, helped it carry out a research survey of the opinions of the public across Saudi Arabia.

Through this initiative, Ithra targeted a segment representing Saudi society to form a better understanding of the public’s interaction with Islamic visual culture, and the Saudis’ knowledge of it. In addition, it also touches the needs and interests of the Saudi public.

Many visitors wrote their opinions on the walls of the exhibition.

In response to the view that most homes have adopted a Western style, a middle-aged woman from Dammam said: "In order to break out of the Western style that invaded us, we need to reinforce our Islamic identity and restore our culture".

For his part, a young man from Jeddah said, apparently commenting on the Arms and Armor piece: "I feel in it the strength and power of the Muslim armies. They combine decorations with things they wore and owned... This indicates that they were proud of their identity and religion".

Many people expressed their amazement at the work of a Chinese Muslim calligrapher, Haj Noor Deen Guebngjiang. His artistic work "Ayat Al-Kursi" is amazing. Noor Deen used brushes and black ink on paper and silk to write the Qur’anic verse in a style similar to the Chinese alphabet as he wanted to highlight his identity as a Chinese Muslim.

Abushullaih confirmed that Ithra always makes sure that the pieces they are exhibiting are unique, rare and meaningful, so each piece has a story behind the object — which is also part of the exhibition (A Journey of Understanding) in the Islamic Arts Biennale.

"The topic of the items related to Islamic art is something that is very close to people's hearts, especially here in Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic world," Abushullaih said.

She added that creating meaningful exhibitions that have a story behind them, such as the “Hijrah: In the footsteps of the Prophet '' which retells the Prophet's journey, is something people find extremely spiritual and they can connect with it very easily. The Hijrah exhibition, which opened in September, and will run until march, is a very interesting mix between traditional Islamic art and more contemporary art.

Abushullaih confirmed that Ithra is now working on a new exhibition that is currently being curated for the Islamic art gallery specifically.

Regarding the turnout of non-Muslim visitors, she said the Hijrah exhibition is related to history and the fact that it links modern history in terms of immigration, the topic of migration and its theme. "What we see in the world today I think is what makes people a lot more interested in knowing the story of Islamic art," Abushullaih said.

When asked if Ithra has any plan to open a new branch or a center in Jeddah or Riyadh due to the huge participation from these regions in several of its exhibitions, Abushullaih said they knew the importance of outreach and that there is a highly booming cultural sector in Jeddah and Riyadh.

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