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“It is an honour to develop the first Islamic Arts Biennale within this iconic, culturally symbolic and welcoming structure. This is a historic moment, not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the entire Muslim world, and for all of the parts of the world that Islam touches. For a long time, we have been waiting for a moment to represent ourselves from our perspectives, from our voices.
To understand the Islamic Arts Biennale as a platform for making a contribution to the discourse and canon of Islamic arts has been profoundly personal and important to me. It is important that we acknowledge that Islamic faith, Islamic practice and Islamic tradition can and should be making a creative contribution to the world.
Islamic practice is rooted in collective rituals and experiences of community and belonging.
The theme of Awwal Bait refers to the reverence and symbolic unity evoked by the Ka'bah in Makkah, the centre of our rituals, and underscores the importance of the geographic location of this biennale - a place that has witnessed migrations from across the world. At the same time, it reflects on the construction of 'home' through our spiritual and cultural rituals in Islam; acts which both unite us and celebrate our diversity and cultural hybridity.
Seeing the biennale come to life through the voices and perspectives of our artists has been profound. Each of them has boldly and sensitively taken on the opportunity of this platform to contribute to an emerging discourse on Islamic arts that we hope will continue. At its essence, for me, this biennale is about giving contemporary objects a home by giving them a lineage and giving historic objects a home by giving them a future.
As Artistic Director, I am honoured that this definition of Islamic art - rooted in the experiential, the sensory, the atmospheric - has manifested in this biennale. I hope that this definition can seed worlds that will continue to manifest identities which are reflective, and generative with philosophies and experiences of Islam that are resonant with the worlds so many of us have been raised in and inhabit.” — Sumayya Vally
Bridging the past, present, and future through 40+ contemporary works and over 15 never-before-exhibited works, in addition to 280 artefacts, delivered by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation through a unique multi-sensorial experience at the iconic Aga Khan award-winning Western Hajj Terminal in Jeddah.
Themed ‘Awwal Bait’ – meaning First House’, in reference to the Holy Ka’bah in Makkah – the historic first edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale, with Artistic Direction by Sumayya Vally, features over 60 established and emerging artists from around the globe, over 40 new commissions, 280 artefacts and over 15 never-before-exhibited works of art.
Movement is at the heart of an Islamic form of thinking, one that traces the trajectory of ideas between people and places. It is a methodology that feels resonant with the tradition of the sahabah, the name given to those who offered companionship to the Prophet (pbuH). Companionship in journeying brings into dialogue the landscape, lived space, and experience of a community, defining their ties and sense of belonging.
Awwal Bait (First House) looks to how the source has travelled, as we reflect on the migration of the first muslims from the Awwal Bait to the city of Medinah, we reflect on how rituals are carried in the construction of home and belonging. Many contemporary migrations in our world are synonymous with loss and displacement. In many of these scenarios, rituals become constructions of belonging - bridges between here and elsewhere. The Islamic Arts Biennale draws on these themes, presenting experiences that surround these expressions and forms of belonging - reflecting on the role of rituals in creating connections and constructing belonging.
These fragments inspire, narrate and render visible wisdoms, imaginations and futures of “home” and spiritual placemaking; from the scale of the body to the scale of the cosmos. Artists explore these themes through contemporary interpretations of instruments of home.
Awwal Bait, which translates literally into First House, is used in the Qur’an to signify the Ka'aba in Makkah. As the House of God, it is the most sacred site in Islam and the direction (qiblah) all Muslims face in their daily prayers, regardless of location. Moreover, it is the destination for pilgrims from around the world embarking on the annual pilgrimage, making it the unifying focus for all Muslims. The concept of Awwal Bait examines how the Ka'aba and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah inspire Muslims worldwide on both cultural and metaphysical levels to create a sense of belonging in their own home, their own “bait,” wherever that may be.
The theme unfolds in two complementary sections, with galleries and outdoor installations creating a dialogue between sacred sites and rituals, inviting artists to interpret and reflect on the personal and communal expressions and emotions they invoke. The principal theme of the indoor galleries is that of Qiblah (Sacred Direction), with Makkah as the focus. Under the canopy of the former Hajj Terminal, the installations will reflect on multiple senses of Hijrah (Migration), from the initiation of the Muslim era to reflections on contemporary displacement and how, despite the loss of a physical home, Muslims retain their spiritual home in the Awwal Bait.
Throughout the Biennale, there will be juxtapositions of contemporary creations and historical objects, of which the most significant will be in two separate pavilions presenting artefacts originally housed in the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and in the Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah.
Reflecting on the spiritual and physical journeys of faith, enlightenment, knowledge and exchange (Hajj, hadith, ijaza) across the Islamic World and the networks it has created; we return to the acts of service for the holy sites and the pilgrims. In the reception hall of the Islamic Arts Biennale, Sumayya Vally interpreted the concept of the reception area into the idea of a reception area for the world - what the site and the city of Jeddah has always been. Here, Ahmed Mater (b. 1979, Tabuk, Saudi Arabia) welcomes visitors to the Hajj Terminal with an array of contemporary and older artifacts associated with the “infrastructures of service” surrounding the pilgrimage, and the experience of being a pilgrim itself. Central to the display are a number of paper licenses once issued to those who had applied to be water carriers around the Haram Mosque. The distribution of water was a traditional urban occupation and is still a vital service to pilgrims today. The water carriers’ documents are richly textured with the personal details of each applicant—passport photograph, fingerprints, and descriptions of eye color and other physical characteristics— as well as the markers of bureaucracy such as stamps, staples, and checklists. Also shown are other objects from the relatively recent past, including the earthenware pots that held water from the Zamzam well and carriers in which elderly people or those with disabilities could be transported. In assembling these items here, Mater acknowledges the support services offered to pilgrims during the Hajj and celebrates the generosity of the individuals who perform them.
Qiblah: Etymologically, the Arabic word qibla (قبلة) means “direction”. In Islamic ritual and law, it refers to the direction of the Ka’bah during forms of worship, the invisible line that connects every Muslim to Allah’s House in Makkah, the Ka‘bah. It is the direction every Muslim faces as they pray, five times a day, every day of the year. The Ka‘bah provides a focus for the individual and for the community: millions of these invisible lines of spiritual energy converge on it from around the world, while from it divine energy radiates out. These lines and energies take visible form when a congregation gathers to pray, the faithful perfectly aligned toward the qiblah in parallel columns and rows that express their collective unity.
Establishing the qiblah and the times of prayer encouraged the Muslim world to make notable advances in astronomy and mathematics. It influenced the architecture of mosques—in which the qiblah is marked by a mihrab—and their orientation, so that they often stand at a marked angle to the surrounding streets. The qiblah also connects the believer to Allah’s House after death, as Muslims are buried on their right side, facing Makkah. A cemetery is a place to remember an individual, but the aligned interments remind us that the individual was a single member of a greater community.
In the galleries of the Biennale, historical objects and contemporary artworks have been placed together to reflect on the rituals of Muslim life. They trace a journey following the invisible line of the qiblah, from the first call to prayer to arrival at the Ka‘bah, the holiest site of Islam.
As dawn breaks in the east, a single voice loudly summons the local community to the mosque. As the sunrise moves westward around the world, the call is taken up in many different accents and rhythms but its message is always the same: “Hasten to prayer.”
مع طلوع كل فجر جديد، يرتفع نداء كريم في جميع أصقاع المعمورة يدعو الناس لأداء الصلاة، فيَتهادى إلى الأسماع ذلك النداء خمس مرّات في اليوم والليلة بلهجات مختلفة وأصوات متباينة، لكن رسالته تظلّ ثابتةً: "حَيَّ على الصلاة، حَيَّ على الفلاح".
As a sign of respect to God, Muslims wash themselves before they pray. A source of pure water is needed for this physical and spiritual cleansing, and fountains, tanks, and washrooms are features of most mosques.
تعظيمًا وتعبُّدًا لله تعالى، فُرض على المسلمين الوضوء قبل أداء الصلاة. ولإتمام هذا التطهّر الجسدي والروحي فإنهم يحتاجون لاستعمال ماءٍ طَهور، ولذلك جُعلت في المساجد أحواض ومغاسل تُعدّ من أهم مرافقها.
What structures time, routine, habit, repetition.
Salat is the act of prayer, repeated five times a day by Muslims around the world. While external purification rituals prepare the body for prayer, the internal intentions/prayers of the believer, set to the rhythm of the day and the celestial calendar of the Islamic year, is what prepares the mind and heart. The different postures of prayer are performed as a supplication to Allah.
In this space, the visitor enters a gallery that includes olive oil paintings that show the body in different postures of prayer and culminates in an immersive environment in which visitors are taken on a visual journey through the different qualities of light at the five daily prayer times as a meditation on illumination, movement, and spiritual intention. This movement through individual prayer is then expanded as visitors moves to the next gallery to join the congregation.
Worshipping with others magnifies the value of prayer. The community of Muslims come together in the mosque where, shoulder to shoulder in rows, they pray in the direction of Makkah.
الصلاة في الجماعة تُضاعف الأجر والثواب. يجتمع المسلمون في المسجد حيث يُسَوّون الصفوف، ويُحاذون بين المناكب والأقدام، ويستقبلون القِبلة لأداء الصلاة جماعةً.
When death comes, the soul passes on to the afterlife. The body left behind is washed and covered with a simple shroud, and mourners visit to pay their respects. Then funeral prayers are spoken and the body is buried in the earth, facing the qiblah.
عندما يَحين الأجَل، تُفارق الروحُ الجسدَ. وأما الجسد فيُغسَّل ويُكفَّن بثوب بسيط، ثم يأتي المُعَزّون لتوديع صاحبه؛ وفاءً له. وبعد أداء صلاة الجنازة عليه، يُدفَن جسده تحت التراب باتجاه القِبلة؛ تكريمًا له.
The Ka‘bah in Makkah is the spiritual and physical focus for Muslims the world over. As the Awwal Bait, the First House of Allah, it is the holiest site on earth, the place to which prayers are directed and pilgrims journey.
الكعبة المشرّفة في مكّة المكرّمة هي مقصد المسلمين قاطبةً ومهوى أفئدتهم. فهي أول بيت من بيوت الله، وأطهر بقعة على وجه الأرض، وإليها يُولّي المسلمون وجوههم لأداء الصلاة، ويشدّون الرحال لأداء مناسك الحج والعمرة.
From the initiation of the Muslim era to reflections on contemporary displacement and how, despite the loss of a physical home, Muslims retain their spiritual home in the Awwal Bait. The journey of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers from Makkah to Medinah, in which the first muslims fled persecution is also identified as the epoch of the Lunar Hijri calendar, marking the beginning of the islamic calendar. As we reflect on the migration of the first muslims from the Awwal Bait to the city of Medinah, we reflect on how rituals are carried in the construction of home and belonging. Many contemporary migrations in our world are synonymous with loss and displacement. In many of these scenarios, rituals become constructions of belonging - bridges between here and elsewhere.
The holy sites are still synonymous with migration - as the most visited site of pilgrimage in the world. They construct and colour a collective imagination of muslims the world over. They belong not fixed in geographical place, but woven into senses of belonging and identity for the ummah. Rituals and practises - from everyday to transcendent - born in the holy sites, are reflected in homes across the globe. The world too, is reflected in the cultural life of the Hijaz; having witnessed and absorbed these migrations. Travelling through culture—from the sounds and cadences from one region to another, from the shapes and forms of one lettering system to another, from the tastes of one region to another; this section explores how our rituals migrate. The Biennale is a platform to reflect on the power of the philosophies of these rituals to produce a multitude of forms of cultural expression.
With the establishment of the new hijri calendar, time was calculated by lunar rather than solar years and months. The symbolic significance of this translation carried with it material considerations—how to mark and measure the passage of celestial bodies determining the times of prayers. The works of art gathered under this theme consider the relationship between the Earth and the outer universe, between us and forces beyond the limits of our experience.
من خلال إنشاء التقويم الهجري الجديد، تحوَّلَ حساب الوقت من السنوات والأشهر الشمسية إلى القمرية. حملت الأهمّية الرمزية لهذه النقلة في ثناياها اعتبارات عملية، تمثّلت في العناية بتحرّي الدقة في الحسابات الفلكية لتوظيفها في معرفة مواقيت العبادات. تبحث الأعمال الفنّية التي تندرج تحت هذا الموضوع في العلاقة بين كوكب الأرض وبين الكون الفسيح.
The ritual of tasbih—the act of reciting the names of Allah or short lines of prayer a precise number of times—is a means to express humility and seek closeness with Allah. The artworks in this group invite us to reflect on how religious, historical, and cultural knowledge is transmitted and preserved through acts of praise and recitation.
The Hijrah was a moment when people came together, and the act of gathering is integral to what it means to be a member of the Muslim community. This condition is central to the artworks brought together here. They question how one imagines belonging—to a group, a time, a place, and our collective home in nature—and how through its reconstruction, creative opportunities for learning and cultural exchange emerge.
Some objects carry the weight of history with them—they register and preserve memories and catalogue tales of times past. They allow history to be made mobile and portable, and through them it can be carried on a journey. The artworks and objects seen in this group here index events that are understood through their material remains. Either as archaeological objects or artistic interpretations, they allow us to recognize in them our own experience.
والتعبيرات الوجدانية في الممارسات الثقافية الإسلامية حول مبدأ التكرار. استُلهمت تلك الممارسات التأمّلية من صور العبادة في الإسلام، ويمكن ملاحظتها في التصاميم الهندسية أو الآثار المحسوسة للشعائر الدينية المتوارثة. تَحمل الأعمال المعروضة هنا معاني متعدّدة، وتتناول روايات تاريخية متشابكة تنجلي شيئًا فشيئًا كلّما راكمنا التجارب، وتحتفي برغبتنا الدائمة في فهم العالم من حولنا.
In Islamic cultural practices, identity, heritage, and spiritual expression are structured around acts of repetition. These meditative processes developed from the rites of prayer in Islam, and can still be recognized in every geometric design and in the physical traces of inherited religious rituals. The works presented under this theme speak to many layers of meaning, to intertwined histories that are revealed slowly in each encounter, and to our continual desire to make sense of the world around us.
Diriyah Biennale Foundation (DBF), established in 2020, is a not-for-profit organization established by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture, that plays a role in nurturing creative expression, instilling an appreciation of art’s transformative power and creating cultural experiences that connect the Kingdom’s past and future. The foundation has been bringing its vision to life through a holistic educational calendar of programming, two-city biennales that highlight both the contemporary and the Islamic arts, and an eclectic array of commissions that represent a wide variety of people and backgrounds, site-specific work and community engagement.
Committed to creating two recurring biennales in contemporary and Islamic arts in Saudi Arabia.
Prof. Sumayya Vally, Artistic Director of Awwal Bait the first edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale.
Theme, concept, narrative, creative direction of scenography, with scenography design by OMA. Experience and theme identity, contemporary commissions and direction and oversight of overall experience and narrative.
Dr. Omniya Abdel Barr A conservation architect and historian of Islamic art and architecture, Dr Abdel Barr is a Barakat Trust Fellow at the V&A, and Head of Development at the Egyptian Heritage Rescue Foundation. Dr. Saad Alrashid A leading Saudi scholar, and the author of a comprehensive book that chronicles Darb Zubaydah, one of the most important pilgrimage routes across the Arabian Peninsula since the days of early Islam. He also works on archaeological sites across this trail. Dr. Julian Raby From 2002 to 2017, Dr Raby served as Director of the National Museum of Asian Art – Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, he lectured on Islamic Art at the University of Oxford for 22 years.
Lesley Gray Moad Musbahi Amina Diab Dalya Islam Nayra Zaghloul
Contemplating her creative direction of the Islamic Arts Biennale, Sumayya Vally expressed “The selected artists have been chosen for their methods of practice—grounded in the embodied, the aural, collectivity, and the spiritual. Awwal Bait refers to the reverence and symbolic unity evoked by the Ka‘ba in Makkah, and underscores the importance of the geographic location of this biennale. At the same time, it reflects on the construction of 'home' through our spiritual and cultural rituals in Islam; acts which both unite us and celebrate our diversity and cultural hybridity.I am honored to be working with an incredible constellation of artists, each of whom I believe will contribute meaningfully to this discourse of Islamic art. These artists reflect deeply on the generativity of our contexts and practices for the present and future.”
Igshaan Adams (South Africa) Leen Ajlan (Saudi Arabia) Reem Al Faisal (Saudi Arabia) Adel Al Quraishi (Saudi Arabia) Nasser Al Salem (Saudi Arabia) Noura Al Sayeh-Holtrop (Palestine) Sarah Alabdali (Saudi Arabia) Rund Alarabi (Sudan) Nora Alissa (Saudi Arabia) Moath Alofi (Saudi Arabia) Farah Behbahani (Kuwait) Sultan Bin Fahad (Saudi Arabia) M’barek Bouhchichi (Morocco) Sarah Brahim (Saudi Arabia) Bricklab (Saudi Arabia) Lubna Chowdhary (Tanzania/United Kingdom) Civil Architecture (Bahrain – Kuwait) DAL – Digital Arts Lab (Saudi Arabia) Abdelrahman Elshahed (Egypt) Alia Farid (Kuwait/Puerto Rico) Basmah Felemban (Saudi Arabia) Iheb Guermazi (Tunisia) Haroon Gunn-Salie (South Africa) Ziad Jamaleddine / L.E FT Architects (Lebanon) Idris Khan (United Kingdom) Yasmeen Lari (Pakistan) Huda Lutfi (Egypt) Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia) Haroon Mirza (United Kingdom) Joseph Namy (United States/Lebanon) Moataz Nasr (Egypt) Beya Othmani (Tunisia) Yazid Oulab (Algeria) Shahpour Pouyan (Iran) Kamruzamman Shadin (Bangladesh) Wael Shawky (Egypt) Muhannad Shono (Saudi Arabia) Dima Srouji (Palestine) Studio Bound (Saudi Arabia) SYN Architects (Saudi Arabia) James Webb (South Africa) Ayman Yossri Daydban (Saudi Arabia) Ayman Zedani (Saudi Arabia) Fatiha Zemmouri (Morocco) Soukaina Aboulaoula (Morocco)