Thursday, 23 October 2008

Edge of Arabia

Edge of Arabia is an exhibition organized by Offscreen Education Programme and located at SOAS Brunei Gallery, University of London. Its supposed to "shed new light on the largely unknown contemporary art culture of Saudi Arabia". The main theme of the exhibition is "the complex and diverse identities of 21st century life in the Middle East". An interesting exhibition that is definetly worth visiting. As an architect, there is one particular piece that really stood out for me, and that is a tiny brochure that contained the art works of Mohammed Farea, who happens to be an architect too.

Perhaps what appealed to me is the colorful architectural presence in his work. The stylized buildings may be inspired by the traditional buildings of Najd region in Saudi Arabia, yet ever since I saw these works I couldn’t stop thinking about this book that I casually browsed once about the region of Asir. The vernacular architecture of Asir is mesmerizing in its wonderful and colorful frescoes that decorate the mud brick houses, which are also echoed in the bright colors of men's clothing, giving them the nickname of "flowered men". So I decided to go back to the library and scan few photos to add them to my collection. The book, "Impressions of Arabia" by Thierry Mauger, is a photographic demonstration of the region's architecture, frescoes and lifestyles of the people which are influenced by each other.

What makes the vernacular architecture of Asir so special is that while in other regions of the peninsula decorations are carried out mainly inside the house; here the decorations are spread throughout the entire house, inside and out, appearing on the facade too. The beauty in all this to me lies in "the division of labor which is determined by competence and gender". Men would be responsible for the hard labor of building the houses, and women are responsible for the more delicate task of decorating the house. Thus, the frescoes are not seen as works of art only but as a reflection of the skills and personalities of the women of the house. In these fresco decorations, women found a way to express their "domain" in a masculine culture that requires women to withdraw from the public eye. So it comes as no surprise to know that this is a skill that requires apprenticeship and is passed from mother to daughter, just as masonry is passed from father to son.

Bare mud and multicolored fresco, a typical facade of Bilad Qahtan, Sinhan.

The colorful frescoes carry on from the facade to the interior stairs.

The majlis is the most special room in the house and thus most decorated one as well.

Fresco creation requires team work as shown by this mother and her 2 daughters.

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