Through Arab Eyes

UMOCA stages historic exhibit of Saudi contemporary art.

Though Utah touts the Great Salt Lake, gorgeous national parks and some of the best skiing in the world, the state’s most-visited tourist attraction, bringing in 5 million visitors a year, is Temple Square—or, more casually, the Mormon Mecca. Outsiders see Utah and Temple Square as one and the same—if you live here, you must be one of those peculiar Mormons. The simplistic assumption frustrates Latter Day Saints (who are sick of being the butt of every joke) and gentiles (who are sick of being mistaken for the butt of every joke).

Pieces by Saudi artists in the largest ever exhibition of contemporary Saudi art.
Pieces by Saudi artists in the largest ever exhibition of contemporary Saudi art.

As much as we Utahns hate being painted with such a broad brush, we’re guilty of doing the same. Implicit bias is everywhere, fast-tracking our associations about people based on skin color, clothing, religion or nationality. In addition to creating inaccurate assumptions, humans fear those who are different, be it Mormons or Muslims.

In the shadow of the Mormon Mecca, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art aims to create understanding of Mecca with “Cities of Conviction,” an exhibition presenting works from Islam’s holy city in Saudi Arabia.

“In a time of xenophobia and Islamophobia, there is a moral imperative to expose our communities to cultures that are misunderstood,” says Kristian Anderson, UMOCA executive director. “Although the Muslim community is diverse, they are viewed through a lens of homogeneity that obscures their complexity.”

The city of Mecca is central to the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population. Like Salt Lake, it is a destination for religious pilgrims; like Salt Lake, there is strain between the religious and secular; and, like Salt Lake, restrictive cultural policies color outsiders’ entire perception of the residents.

Paradise Has Many Gates, by Ajlan Gharem, is a mosque constructed of chain-link fencing.

However, there is a contingent of young Saudi artists working to counter those repressive stereotypes. Cities of Conviction will feature 20 of those artists, including Balqis Al-Rashad, UMOCA’s first ever international artist-in-residence. In addition to exhibiting her work, Al-Rashad will be living in Salt Lake City for six weeks, creating site-specific art and teaching public workshops. UMOCA also plans to bring four additional Saudi artists to Utah for performances, lectures and community workshops.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Cities of Convictions is a large sculpture in the exterior courtyard, which takes the form of a fully functional mosque made out of chain-link fence. The artist, Ajlan Gharem, constructed the piece as a metaphor—transparency, he says, is the key to understanding.

The exhibit, the largest of Saudi contemporary art ever to be shown in the the U.S., opens Aug. 25 and runs through the end of 2017. Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, 801-328-4201,

Photos courtesy of: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

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