Abdullah Al Turki talks to Alia Al-Senussi

Text by Alia Al-Senussi

Photography by Alex Maguire

As creative director of non-profit art organisation, Edge of Arabia, Abdullah Al Turki has propelled the group forward with enthusiasm, embracing art as a platform for diplomacy and patriotism. Always impeccably presented, and with a natural charm, he has tirelessly championed arts in the Middle East, and is also a noted collector and patron of international artists and organisations, such as the Tate and Parasol unit. He understands the power that these institutions have in educating as well as producing the next generation of artists and patrons. This knowledge has been applied to Edge of Arabia, promoting dialogue and cultural diplomacy, successfully establishing previously unknown Saudi artists on the international stage.

Alia Al-Senussi After meeting in Boston as students, we were reunited via the artist Youssef Nabil. Was there one particular person or moment that inspired you to delve deeper into the art world?
Abdullah Al Turki London has played a major role. I was living here for such a long time and was interested in, but was never connected with, the Saudi art scene. When you're in London, you see contemporary art from the Middle East alongside that of Europe and the US. I was intrigued why nothing was coming from Saudi when I knew it existed.

AAS Spending time in cities like London or New York is inspiring.
AAT It's an eye-opener, especially London. The city is a melting pot, with different cultures, societies and languages on the street. There is everything for anyone and everyone.

AAS Do you think it's also about a passive exposure to art and culture? That even if you're not involved in the art world, having it around creates an appreciation?
AAT Definitely. London is an inspiration, but we also want to expose the world to Saudi culture. Because there is a lot of negativity toward Saudi Arabia, people are not fully aware of how creative and colourful our culture is. They always talk about a kingdom where you don't have freedom of speech and women can't drive and that they're the reason behind 9/11, etc. Art is a way of promoting the country and showing another side to the western world. To deliver a positive message that reaches a wider audience.

AAS Agreed. Cultural diplomacy is a key element of the art world and countries in the Middle East are realising that now. Look at what Qatar is doing - it's a top down initiative. What you're doing in Saudi is much more of an organic, grassroots initiative.
AAT Well, it works differently. In Saudi Arabia, we have a lack of structural support and knowledge, because art was never taught in school. We never had art history classes, nor any kind of institutions or museums. There weren't enough visual arts in Saudi and this obviously has affected the way people appreciate or think about art. So it's a minority of the population who actually collect or support art initiatives, such as our sponsors, the Jameel family. But in the past two years there has been an increased interest in creativity throughout. I don't mean the country wasn't creative previously, but it's now more visible, more tangible. The younger generation are experimenting, developing their talents and are convinced they can do something. They don't have to follow their fathers' or brothers' example and go into traditional businesses.

AAS You and Edge of Arabia have had a huge impact on that.
AAT The movie industry in Saudi Arabia is booming also. A group of young people wanted to express their feelings about society, about different things in the government, about the way of living in Saudi Arabia, and they used YouTube as their medium.

AAS Yes, that was the drifters, right? M.I.A. used local Saudi drivers for her last music video, "Bad Girls", with those cars in the desert.
AAT Yes, same group. What they did is film episodes and air it on YouTube. So now they have close to 2 million followers, and are being sponsored by the second largest telecommunications company in Saudi Arabia because of their viewers. They discuss Saudi society in a very sarcastic, comedic manner.

AAS A lot of your artists in Edge of Arabia, especially in the most recent show in Jeddah, deal with political and socio-economic issues in a subtle way. Yet the government hasn't tried to put a stop to it and has given relatively tacit approval.
AAT If you asked me four years ago would we ever consider showing some of these works in Saudi, I would have said: "There is no way." But now, things have changed. First, we sensed a hunger for art in Saudi Arabia. At least there is a beginning, and a hope for people to understand what contemporary art is about. Four years ago, we wouldn't have expected to have 1,000 people for the opening night. But now, as you saw in January, this is very possible. That's obviously because of our track record. It has laid the ground for such exhibitions in Saudi. The second thing is, it's rewarding to both myself and the artists returning to Saudi that we can show in our home on this scale. The artists felt they were giving something back to society. It was an honour to show in Saudi Arabia after previously showing throughout Europe, at the Venice Biennale, at British Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum. Third, the artists have their own self-censorship. I'm not saying they censor their topics to avoid government action, but they realise that delivering provocative, religious or political issues and stories through their art isn't necessarily the way forward.

AAS Your artists encourage people to question but avoid repulsion or anger. In a country like yours, that's necessary. People are more open-minded to what they see if the art isn't unnecessarily provocative.
AAT Yes, the artists have respect for their society, for religion, for themselves. You won't see them taking photos featuring nudity or violence or anything against Islam.

AAS Have you had time to step back and savour the moment after the event? There was a week in which you had the director of the Tate Modern, Wolfgang Tillmans, and the Financial Times' arts editor,  as well as Saudi Arabia, celebrating you.
AAT Each exhibition is a different feeling, but being able to show in Saudi was completely unique. I don't feel the reward until I see how people have reflected on it and their reaction. To me, the most rewarding thing is to see the artists improving, and being discussed as internationally renowned.

AAS I remember meeting the artist Ahmed Mater three years ago and he could barely speak English. And in January he had a full day with Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, walking the streets of Jeddah.
AAT Part of what we do in Edge of Arabia is not only putting together exhibitions and touring exhibitions but also supporting the artists by helping them in production, advising on next steps. Both Ahmed Mater and Abdulnasser Gharem did not speak a word of English a few years ago and now they are almost fluent. The other thing is, as a non-profit organisation, the artists can experiment with ideas and produce works that are not necessarily commercially viable. Manal Al Dowayan's piece in our Venice show was more about delivering a message than how the work was going to be produced, priced or sold.

AAS You've just announced Jack Persekian as curator for the London show.
AAT A very big step forward. With each exhibition we try do a different topic and theme that complements the city where the exhibition is held and challenges the artists. In Dubai it was Terminal and the travel factor was very much a part of the exhibition because Dubai is one of the biggest transit cities in the world. Istanbul was Transition and reflected how the city has been living in a transition between Asia and Europe. The artists dealt with this not just in terms of Istanbul, but also as transition of consumer behaviour, transition in society. In Jeddah, We Need to Talk came from the government, King Abdullah's initiative of international dialogue, so the artists wanted to address this. And now we have a responsibility to go to the next level, which is why we hired Jack Persekian. As a well-known curator, he will push the artists towards new boundaries. So they experiment with new topics and are challenged to produce fresh works. In the past, it was more about having an idea and asking an artist to produce a work related to it. With Jack, it's going to be about challenging them to think out of the box.

AAS You'll be partnering with Tank for your opening in October.
AAT Definitely. The opening is going to be just before Frieze, at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, east London. We want it to be very interactive.


  • Abdullah Al Turki Talks to Alia Al-Senussi