DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Ahmed Mater visited Mecca in 2010 something felt off. Dozens of cranes were eating away at the mosque to make way for a larger complex surrounding the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure to which observant Muslims pray toward five times a day that also draws millions of pilgrims annually from around the world.
The changes were irrevocably transforming the city's landscape. So Mater, a practicing physician and modern artist, took pictures. He titled his project "Desert of Pharan" in a nod to Mecca's ancient name.
The kingdom's modern art scene has become a platform for Saudi artists to voice their frustration about the country's most sensitive issues without coming into friction with the country's rulers, reaching the public in new ways and allowing individual points of view in a country where dominant ultraconservative norms have long prevailed.
Saudi modern artists say they are at the frontier of the kingdom's censorship redlines, muddying its boundaries through art.
"Through my art I am clearly making a critique. I am also acting as a witness to the changes and taking part with an opinion and a voice," Mater said. "I believe the artist's role is to expose the truth."
Manal Al-Dowayan's exhibitions focus on women's rights in Saudi Arabia. Her current exhibition in Dubai's Cuadro Art Gallery called "Crash" is a research-based collection that exposes the ways in which Saudi women are rendered voiceless and nameless in news clippings about their death.
Al-Dowayan says the region's pressures force people to express themselves.
"Creativity is an amazing place to release energy, to release a thought and to actually have a platform where other people come in and say 'I agree with you. You're not alone'," she said.
In another artwork, she challenged shame attached to mentioning women's names in front of Saudi men by going around the country collecting signatures from 300 women in a piece resembling prayer beads.
Her most famous project involved sculptures of white doves stamped with a required permission notice for women to travel by their male guardians — usually a husband or father — as per Saudi law. In 2009, the sponsors of the Dubai installation removed the details off the body of the doves in catalogues without explanation, she said. Two weeks later she was shocked to find Saudi Arabia's national airline featuring a four-page spread of her doves in the in-flight magazine.
"I think these redlines have been engrained in me, and it's more of a struggle to understand are these redlines? Do they really exist and have I created them or has someone actually placed them for me?" she said. "And so every project I struggle with how far I can speak about the truth."
Saudi Arabia is one of the world's last absolute monarchies. Open calls for reform are a criminal offense. Women are not allowed to drive and a strict interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is effectively the law of the land.
Adnan Manjal, who helped start Saudi Art Guide in in 2012, says the modern Saudi art scene challenges traditional notions about the country. For example, when Saudi Art Guide first started as a website listing art exhibitions in the kingdom and abroad, Manjal said he was surprised to find there were more than 50 art galleries across the kingdom.
Also, few know that the eastern city of Jiddah purchased more than 400 sculptures for display in public squares in the 1980s, including major works from international artists such as Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and others.
The modern Saudi art scene was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 when Abdulnasser Gharem's Message/Messenger replica of a mosque dome partially propped up by a minaret sold in a Christie's auction for a record-breaking $842,000 to an Iranian buyer. It made him the highest-paid living Arab artist in the world.
Gharem, who has spent more than half his life in the Saudi Army and is a lieutenant-colonel, said the piece resembles a trap and is a metaphor for how some ultraconservative clerics in his country use religion to manipulate the masses.
"People say that religion affects people. I see people affecting religion," he said. "The media cannot talk about these issues, but art has a language that needs no translator."
Because art is not taught in public schools or public universities in Saudi Arabia, the money from the sale was donated to an art program for young Saudis.
While Gharem sometimes works on his art in Saudi Arabia, he sends his works abroad because it is banned in the kingdom. Artists working for the Culture Ministry told him his work could not be shown locally because it talks about religion, he said.
In one of his earlier projects, he wrote the word "El-Sirat", which means path in Arabic, over and over again on the remains of a damaged bridge to provoke thought about the word itself, which is repeated at least 34 times a day by Muslims in prayer.
"The path is an individual thing that you create on your own. I am trying to break this idea of moving with the crowd," Gharem said. "People are living in a simulator. I am trying to get people out of this simulator to live their lives."
All three Saudi modern artists interviewed said they have strong backing from members of the Saudi ruling family, but that officials cannot be seen openly supporting works that could draw the ire of the country's religious establishment.
There have been some exceptions, such as Princess Jawaher bint Majed Al-Saud who funds an annual art week in Jiddah. Another well-known supporter is wealthy Saudi businessman Abdul-Latif Jameel who created Art Jameel that supports the London-based art collective Edge of Arabia run by Stephen Stapleton.2 comments on this story
Stapleton became involved in Saudi art after a trip to a little-known artist village called Al-Meftaha in 2003. The village, located in Saudi Arabia's southern mountainous region, was a vibrant artist hub when it had the backing of Aseer's governor at the time, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, who is now education minister.
Stapleton went to Aseer after hearing that Britain's Prince Charles had worked in a studio in Al-Meftaha three years earlier.
Stapleton said art has a way of transcending borders that look difficult to cross, especially between Saudi Arabia and the West. Edge of Arabia is planning a two-year-long tour across the U.S. starting this year as a way of "facilitating encounters" between people.