Get to know Ahmed Mater, whose work goes on view in Symbolic Cities tomorrow, through a glossary of key terms related to this singular Saudi artist.
- Antenna (above): Mater, pictured with his glowing sculpture Antenna, was born in 1979 in the rugged Aseer region of southwestern Saudi Arabia.
- British Museum: The London institution has acquired and exhibited Mater’s work.
- clock tower: With the growing religious tourism industry, hotel rooms in the new Makkah Royal Clock Tower complex have come to dominate the skyline above the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary.
- Desert of Pharan: In 2011, Mater began photographing Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, for a series titled Desert of Pharan, referring to the ancient name for the area around the holy city.
- The Empty Land: Mater’s first major photographic series, the Empty Land is inspired by nineteenth-century descriptions of the American West.
- From the Real to the Symbolic City: This expansive view captures the extraordinarily dense population and traditional architecture that have characterized Mecca for centuries. Pushed to the outskirts, the old quarter disappears into a horizon obscured by heavy, gray haze, where the iconic clock tower looms like a beacon over the city under construction.
- Golden Hour: A vast field of cranes stands in the perpetual glow of construction lights as the massive expansion of the Great Mosque takes shape and much of Mecca’s history is erased.
- hajj: For more than a millennium, Mecca has hosted Muslims performing the hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage centered on the Kaaba, a cube-like building in the middle of the Masjid al-Haram (Great Mosque).
- jamarat: Moving east to west, pilgrims reenact Abraham’s hajj by throwing seven pebbles against each of three pillars, known collectively as jamarat. In Mater’s photograph Human Highway, we can sense both the significance of this rite and the considerable risk posed by the overwhelming mass of people funneling in.
- Kaaba: The structure at the center of the hajj and its pilgrims are represented in Mater’s Magnetism.
- Leaves Fall in All Seasons: In this video—Mater’s vision of Mecca through the eyes of immigrant construction workers—a lone figure perches on the golden crescent that will crown the clock tower. The worker’s mundane task becomes spectacular, as he glides through the air “like an angel bringing a warning.”
- Makkah/Mecca: Today, as Mater’s images show, Mecca is witnessing the largest transformation in its history. “Like few cities on earth, Makkah (Mecca) seems to buckle under the weight of its own symbolism,” he says. “It is a hallowed site revered by millions and a point of perpetual immigration. In recent years, it has begun to be recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured.”
- Nature Morte: Inside the quiet luxury of a private hotel room overlooking the Great Mosque’s main sanctuary, Mater’s framing becomes a subtle commentary on how political and spatial changes are reinventing the center of the Islamic world.
- Pelt Him!: The murmur of crowds and the continuous rhythm of pebbles striking a wall gently draw us into Mecca, one of the most restricted yet highly visited cities in the world. At several different points during the hajj, pilgrims perform this stone-throwing ritual, symbolizing stoning the devil or casting away temptations.
- Riyadh: Mater’s exploration of Saudi Arabia has led him toward Riyadh, the country’s administrative capital and largest city, and the roots of the social transformation that he is witnessing today. In his latest project, Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years, Mater reimagines life in and around Riyadh and the Saudi Aramco compounds further east.
- Symbolic Cities: This exhibition, the first in the United States solely dedicated to Mater, presents his visual and aural journeys observing economic and urban change in Saudi Arabia. In Mater’s words, the “real city” of Mecca is being replaced by a new “symbolic city.”
- transformation: Now based in Jeddah, Mater experiments with a range of mediums in his search to understand the country’s rapid transition from an agrarian way of life to a powerful oil-based economy.
- utopia: Observing one of the many billboards of the older city that mask construction sites, Mater considers Mecca as a living city that is constantly re-envisioned: “Dreams surround it . . . in the belief that Utopia can be created here. Yet time and again, as with every age of renovation, we live within a reality of drills, demolition, and destruction.”
- workers: Along with Mecca’s evolving urban plan and its inhabitants, Mater observed the conditions of the many immigrant workers. His photograph Artificial Light Construction is an interior view of a new sanctuary space, framed by an endless expanse of scaffolding, that reinforces the extraordinary scale—and uniformity—of the changes taking place from the perspective of the workers rebuilding the city.
- x-rays: Mater’s first experience with photography was shooting x-rays while working in a hospital. Compare those images to the ones in his Disarm series, in which Mater photographed Mecca through the cold light of a military helicopter’s night surveillance camera.
- Yemeni border: As Mater explains of Antenna: “Standing on the dusty rooftop of my family’s traditional house in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia, I would lift a battered TV antenna as far as I could toward the evening sky. Moving it slowly across the mountainous horizon, I searched for a signal from beyond the Yemeni border or across the Red Sea toward Sudan. . . . Like many of my generation in Saudi Arabia, I was seeking ideas, music, poetry—a glimpse of a different kind of life. This spirit of creative exploration, curiosity, and reaching out to communicate across the borders surrounding me have defined my journey as an artist.”
Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.