Al Tamarah as a way of creating a new context for the conventional notions of hospitality in Saudi Arabia
Al Tamarah is the Arabic name of the date fruit which has been a vital and unique symbol of hospitality in Saudi Arabia since at least 7000BC (Lunda, 1987; Omer, 2010). In Islam, the home is regarded as a place where humility is shown to neighbours and to visitors and where hospitality is offered and relationships between family members and the broader society are strengthened (Aird et al., 2014). When visitors enter a Saudi home, they are welcomed with dates and Arabic coffee, the simplest examples of hospitality drawn from centuries-old traditional Arab tribal culture and the most potent example of creating social spaces, relationships, connections and cultural exchanges between people. Aird et al. (2014) said that the home is a place with opportunities to extend hospitality to neighbours and improve relationships with society. A’ishah reported the Prophet (ﷺ) PBUH as saying that a family which has no dates will be hungry (Al-Albani), which implies that dates had become essential food for Bedouins. This proposed practice-based research study examines how the original culture can create a social space and how participants can create a new context for this cultural tradition if it is re-presented in a new location. Bourriaud (2002) suggested that relational aesthetics is an urgent way to generate a welcome for acquaintances rather than simply betting on more happy tomorrows (Bishop, 2004). I shall use the date in my practices as an example of the Saudi hospitality culture and re-present it in unconventional social spaces which will create a new coding for this cultural act after participants adopt it and interact through it in a new location. I shall consider the works of Rirkrit Tiravanija, Lucy and Jorge Orta and Saeed al-Kamhawi to re-present date-based installations in new social spaces. Drawing practices have been a key part of my research and reflect the history of this act of hospitality, its locations, and its forms (see Figures 1, 2 and 3).
Figure 1, preparation the coffee for the guest
Figure 2 process of collecting the date
Figure 3 process of collecting the date
I have always found that cultural exchange is two-way form of communication between people which creates a great deal of cultural diversity which helps us to understand each other and reach unity: “When one experiences other cultures, one looks at the world from another perspective and accepts that the other one understands the essence of the diversity. This is the first step towards achieving unity” (Tariq, 2018). As an artist, I come from a culture in which hospitality has always been a part of the habitual behaviour of Saudi society, which reflects generosity, giving, exchange, sharing, welcoming and creating social relationships. It was customary for Bedouins to act as hosts to any visitors coming to them from anywhere for a period of three days, regardless of their resources, even if that meant sacrificing the last goat or camel for the occasion (Ali & Stephenson, 2018). I therefore find it interesting to represent this culture which basically cannot occur in the presence unless of two or more people. Ali and Stephenson (2018: 13) argued that “a social space for hospitality does not exist in isolation but falls within private and commercial spaces”. I argue that the hospitality table and food are some of things which create a lot of communication between people, even if it is in limited periods at a time when we find our societies being extremely busy and even in an imposed isolation, which is why I seek to create these social spaces through my work so that we can enjoy a cultural exchange. I think that this underpins a form of relational art which Claire Bishop (2004) explained as a set up situation in which audiences are actually given the means to create a community, however provisional or imaginative, in spaces. Massey, a geographer who investigated the concept of space (Edmonds, 2013), stated that “Space concerns our relations with each other and, in fact, social space is a product of our relations with each other, our connections with each other” (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Part of a series of ‘Social Science Bites’
illustrations by the scientific illustrator Alex Cagan.
Relational art was described by Nicholas Bourriaud (2002) as a method of creating these participatory spaces within the study of the relational aesthetics, and this notion will underpin this current study of social interaction which takes human relations and their social context as an effective point in the artistic experience. This depends on artists’ abilities to recreate the lived environment which we feel every day for the participants who engage with the work; “This collective experience can effectively cover any action from our daily lives, like drinking coffee, having dinner or booking a hotel room” (Anika, 2015). In my work, I examine how a particular cultural object (the date) and the hospitality practices which depend on it can create spaces for social interaction for participants who can also create a social coding of this culture.
Figure 5. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘Untitled (Free)’ exhibition recreated at MoMA in 2012 (photograph from MoMA)
In ‘Untitled (Free)’ (1992) (see Figure 5) and a series of similar works, Rirkrit Tiravanija initiated ways of cooking for audiences by using cultural food to create social spaces to enable the public to be part of an art-making process which focused on relational aesthetics. One critic described Tiravanija’s work as a “makeshift refugee kitchen” (Bishop, 2004), a comment which confirmed that this work took place in a social space. Tiravanija said that the work was based on the idea of food in an anthropological and archaeological way; the experiment did not focus on the artwork but on people and their interactions (MoMA, 2011). This is one type of data collection method which practising scholars commonly use in qualitative research and ethnography, including cultural anthropology, with the intention of gaining knowledge of a group of people through their participation in a cultural environment. In the late 1990s, in the 303 Gallery, Tiravanija focused increasingly on creating situations where the audience could produce its own work (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘Untitled (Free)’ at the 303 Gallery’s, ‘New’ exhibition 1992 (photograph by courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York)
The intersection between my work and Tiravanija's work is the building of social spaces which focus on the theory of relational aesthetics, taking the artistic practices as their theoretical and practical point of departure for exploring the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. I think that I shall exclude my direct participation so that the audience is not influenced by what they have to do; I will replace that with a very simplified video offer that prompts them to start interacting which will help them to understand what they are doing to be their interaction beginning to create a new context for my cultural practices in these social spaces through the interaction of participants who do not have a shared culture, whilst Tiravanija always starts to interact with his work to be a directive for the audience motivate them to interact with work.
Figure 7. ‘Royal Limoges’ 70 x 7; ‘The Meal Act XXXIV’, Philadelphia, 2013
In their ‘Meal Act’ series (see Figure 7), Lucy and Jorge Orta linked food sustainability with participatory gatherings in outside spaces with a considerable number of people sitting at large tables which could accommodate a large number of guests. I think that Figure 7 clearly displays the artists’ aim in this experience by creating a social space and stimulating communication without focusing on any decision-making through the interaction from the participants, which is the opposite of my intention to create social spaces, including many small spaces between two-four people, which do stimulate a deeper conversation, a connection and an interaction with my work to be these interactions is a part of my research result. The interesting thing for me in the Ortas’ work is not just the subject of sharing food, community gatherings and spontaneous public meetings, but the method which the artists used to present the work through all the details of shapes, words and colours on the food plates, and then giving these pieces as a home gift of art to each individual participant "At the end of the meal, each guest took home their porcelain plate contributing to a ripple effect of conversations from the table, to the civic space, to the private sphere, and back to the table" (Studio-Orta.com. 2013). This reflects a vineyard, generosity and kindness, showing clearly how you give your best to strangers, and it represents the utmost degree of giving. I started to think about the way that I need to create interest in the details of drawing and narrative in a fabric piece installation to present this piece of art as a gift for participants (see Figure 8) which in my view reflects the aspect of tenderness and generosity. Because of the isolation created by the Covid 19 lockdowns, I tried to apply this experience in another way by sending my work to people in their homes for them to create these spaces in their own surroundings so that I could observe the behaviour resulting from the experiment in the pictures and the video which I sent. I wanted to extend this experience by presenting it in social spaces where I could directly observe the participants’ interaction.
Figure 8. A sample of the gift
Figure 9. Eatopia, ‘A unique culinary experience’ (25 October 2016)
The Taiwanese installation artist Etopia (see Figure 9) created a unique experience by presenting five different dishes for the audience in a quiet atmosphere, stimulating all five senses and creating an ideal society formed by a social bond by inviting people to share in community participation and reflection and to exchange ideas in discussions, enjoy cultural collisions and fusion between the distinct ethnic, age and social groups of Taiwan. Each dish in this work reflected a different meaning and concept of the cultural fusion which had occurred as a result of the experience of colonialism in Taiwan. I want to create an installation piece of fabric which incorporates several traditional cultural items, dates, Arabic coffee, saffron and cardamom, which represent the traditional Saudi culture of hospitality in new place in a social experiment designed for participants to enjoy, communicate and create a new context for the original culture by interacting with people who have no background in my culture. The installation will stimulate the five senses in a way which incorporates the traditional hospitality of welcoming a guest with the smell of incense and coffee while paying attention to the general atmosphere of sitting together.
Figure 10. Jorge Pardo’s ‘Flamboyant’ (photograph by courtesy of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo)
In another experiment with relational aesthetics which had nothing to do with cooking and eating food, one of the most influential artists in relational aesthetics, the Cuban Jorge Pardo, explored the boundaries between art, design and shared living spaces. In his work ‘Flamboyant’, Pardo evoked the familiar experience of relaxing under a tree, attracting guests to enjoy the lush pieces which, like the striking tree (Delonix regia), exuded a transient beauty. In a ‘living space’, Pardo created a round carpet with broad yellow, copper and orange stripes, thirteen light fixtures and seven rocking chairs, all of which were designed and produced by Pardo himself (see Figure 10). I think that the position of the audience in my work will be different because I shall ask the audience to interact with my culture in any way they like, which will help me to see what new coding context can come through this interaction.
The exhibition ‘We are Many’, set up in the Museum of the São Paulo by the State Secretariat for Culture and Creative Economics from 10 August to 28 October, 2019, highlighted the comprehension of art as a collaborative practice by dissolving the concept of individual production. In ‘Experiments in Collectivity’, which investigated artistic practice as a collective exercise, six national and international artists and collectives participated, Maurício Ianês, Mônica Nador and Jamac, the Coletivo Legítima Defesa, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tania Bruguera and Vivian Caccuri (wsimag.com, 2019).
Figure 11. Hélio Oiticica, Parangolés (2007), performed as part of UBS Openings:
The Long Weekend, Tate Modern, 28 May 2007 (photograph © Tate)
Amanda Arantes (2019) said that Hélio Oiticica was one of the principal artists to test the idea of eliminating the passive viewer and making the public engage with the work. In ‘Parangolés’ (2007), he designed brightly coloured fabrics for participants to wear as a way of injecting colour into the space and to animate it by dancing to samba music. By involving members of the public, teachers and the London School of Samba, he questioned the way of prompting them to engage. He also made a video of the performance of Parangolés to demonstrate experiencing a sense of community through participation. I used white fabric as a material for my installation, interspersed with drawings which reflect Saudi hospitality in order to inspire the participants who were sharing my work in their own homes and responding to it by creating various acts of hospitality at their own tables during the lockdown isolation period. In June 2020, I approached the Copeland Gallery to add several drawings on each piece which I shall present which could inspire the participants to create a variety of contexts. I am also thinking seriously about making a short video which can present a simple performance with the date, and this can be as an instruction for participants to encourage them to engage with my culture in ways which reflect hospitality in an experience which we seek to realize what is around us and to exchange our culture and integrate with the world around us (see Figure 12).
The nature of our perceptual contact with the world depends on providing a direct description of the human experience. “The world is a field for perception, and human consciousness assigns meaning to the world. We cannot separate ourselves from our perceptions of the world” was how Merleau-Ponty explained phenomenology, adding that the nature of our perceptual contact with the world depends on providing a direct description of the human experience. This is the idea which underpins this research alongside relational aesthetics. I believe that finding answers depends on experiments which sometimes need a lived experience which can help us to find meaning which can help us to achieve greater awareness and perception of the world. I live in this experience through my research. I use my culture to understand what it means, what its function is. I try to live it in to find this meaning. Memory is a part of the process of awareness; it is an experience which we can have through our capacity to evoke the past in space, this is the space which Ponty described as a form of outward experience rather than as a corporal setting in which external objects are arranged. The relationships between objects in space are revealed by the experience of perceiving them (angelfire.com).
Figure 13.’What Lies Behind the Walls’ by Zahrah Al-Ghamdi (2020)
Zahra Al-Ghamdi is a Saudi artist who strives to revive and explore Saudi identity, memory and culture through architecture. She showcases ancient history by collecting natural environmental elements such as clay, rocks, leather, shells and water and creatively displaying them in different places. Her specific site-work ‘What Lies Behind the Walls’ in Desert X (see Figure 13) shows the connection between the desert landscape and architecture through a sculpture which echoes a traditional building and expresses the emotion and memories related to her culture in the form of a monolith fertile with cement, soils and dyes specific to each region.
In this experience, Al Ghamdi evokes the history in outside space in another place which is not the same as her original culture place; she seeks to share her culture with the world, and also I think that she included a message asking us to open the doors and to start to remove barriers.
Figure 14. Afrah Babkair, 2021, Photograph of a,
date, Arabic coffee, saffron and cardamom
In my work ‘Date object with other objects’ (see Figure 14), I played with the traditional cultural accompaniments to the date, Arabic coffee, saffron and cardamom, to compare the date with the other elements in order to know why I chose the date as an example of the Saudi culture of hospitality. I found that these elements evoke the original place of hospitality in the Saudi desert, while I am in another place at my table in a different country, and this represents the vital link between these elements in the representation of the original culture and paramount among them is the date.
This experiment inspired me to explore more deeply the idea of embodying different elements which can evoke the culture, memory, places and history in a virtual location in addition to the traditional hospitality places which I share with my children; I think that a different expression is created which will remind us of the family places in Saudi which are filled with hospitality and connections and enable us to live it in the current new place where we are now.
Figure 15. Saeed Kamhawi’s ‘My Mother's Rug’
There are other examples which have embodied the culture through the memory of the past, place and space. In ‘My Mother's Rug’ (see Figure 15), a project by the Saudi artist Saeed Kamhawi, Saudis’ migration from their towns and villages to the country’s main cities was the principal idea. He used the rug which had been a wedding gift from his father to his mother as an allegory for the last connection with his hometown when he moved to Riyadh city, which is an example of a place of hospitality and generosity. He transferred the original material of this carpet to preserve it technologically and recreated it horizontally on the sand in repeated areas defining the Saudi home’s seating areas. The way that Kamhawi used to present the rug was what interested me because the virtual approach which he used for this object was a very simple way of presenting this cultural object which is related to the meaning of space, place, meeting, sharing, conversation and relationships; it is in the same place but with another material, or rather immaterial because the projection which represents the rug on which we used to sit in our house spaces looks like the same thing, but in its photic transparent form it penetrates our bodies, and the texture of the sand gives participants a different emotion as they interact with the work in the way that the artist had not expected, resulting in a deeper meaning for these elements as places for meeting friends, providing hospitality and family and childhood memories of playing with sand. It is an attractive, interactive, smart and expressive way by which inspired me to think about changing the way we display things that we are used to every day, which is centred on changing the usual view of everyday objects which i think can inspire participants to interact in a new way which gives deep meanings to things that we menhaden it and Look at it in our culture from one specific side. What I have tried to do in my work is to present my culture differently without losing cultural identity in spaces for different audiences, one which belongs to my culture, which I had experienced with them during this period of isolation when I sent my work to their homes and received different words back from them such as welfare, happiness, philanthropy, surprises, gifts, shared love and thoughtful giving and uniqueness. The other participant group from a different culture will be interacting with my work in the Copeland Gallery in June, and I think that this will enrich the meaning, and make us delve into the meaning.
The British artist Rich McCor (known as ‘Paperboyo’) (see Figure 16) combines paper cut-outs and photography by placing black designs in the foreground of his images with buildings and structures in the background to create a unique compositional minutieusement. He presents different ideas through these photographs in a simple way which relies on his broad imagination. He has succeeded in achieving meaning in elegant, vital and attractive pictures in these unique studies, but I think that his work is purely aesthetic in its aim to create a creative image. Unlike Paperboyo, my aim in my work ‘The date as an object of welcome’ was to explore the relationships which surround my cultural object. I transferred my drawing work from 2D to 3D, which I thought would help me to make contact with social spaces in this time of lockdown when we cannot have contact with people because of the isolation. I regard this experience as very interesting and I evoked social relationships and sought to create interaction with my object. I think that Paperboyo studies the location before setting up the shot and considers the possibilities for the paper form which most closely and actively use the site, and I guess that if I applied this technique, I could get more in-depth results by expanding the drawing of some elements of hospitality, such as dates and coffee spilt from pots, or a coffee cup with a group of people, to create expressive combinations of hospitality elements in outdoor spaces. By collaborating with each other and realizing that possibility, I think that it will be very creative and will create a time and place for us to communicate and exchange ideas.
Figure 17. Fahd Al-Naima’s drawing
Fahd Al-Naima’s drawings (see Figure 17) focus on one of the cultural symbols in Saudi Arabia: camels. They reflect the legacy, culture and close relationship between Saudi humans and animals which exemplifies the Saudi heritage and the desert. The strong and explicit line used by the artist reflects the depth of this relationship as a shorthand symbol to result in a group of lines, shapes and elements which express the culture, history and cultural practices which are related to it. Naima's work has always inspired me by its rapid, strong and direct drawing in which I find a strong link with my drawings of dates and their geographical characteristics. I think that for me and for al Naima, our drawings present the lived experience, a denomination of history and culture in the most extreme stage of its abstract and reduction, which helps us to understand and represent these samples, shapes and culture well. It continues to inspire me to expand the scope of my work and delve more deeply into the date component of hospitality and everything associated with it.
Figure 18. ‘Kiroseyeonkyedo’, (耆老世聯禊圖, A Banquet for a Mutual Association of Elderly People) by Kim Hong-Doh (1745),
Kim Hong-Doh (see Figure 18) was one of the most famous Korean artists for drawing natural life and reflecting the lives of people in natural environments in works which represent farmers and the world of harvest. This is clearly seen in his famous paintings created during the Chŏsun dynasty which focused on the cultural characteristics of Korean food simply and precisely in documentation and expression for a period of time in which he was present and which he reflected realistically, and we can notice his interest in details used as a means of exploring the behavioural impact of an urban place, a technique called psycho-geography. I try to evoke and visualize the history of my culture from what I currently know, hear and witness. His drawings inspired me to use simplicity in my drawing to delve into the narrative of the public and social life which has been part of Saudi society from the period of nomadism right up to the present day representing hospitality and the practices which it involves related to dates. This helped me to understand my research and explore it in a deeper way. The narrative, documentation, space, place and social spaces in my drawings helps me and my audience to understand the traditional notion of my culture. I would like to present more work in this simple, real-life style but in more detail in order to represent as fully as possible the places and literature of traditional Saudi hospitality.
Geronta described psycho-geography as “Generating thoughts inside the mind, yet revealed in every aspect of the surroundings (environment built or natural). Psychogeography comes to consolidate the methods, the place and the time”, and there are
Figure 19. Julie Mehretu, ‘Middle Grey’, 2007-2009, ink and acrylic on canvas
304.8 x 426.7 cm (courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)
several different psycho-geographies. The huge-scale drawings (see Figure 19) which Julie Mehretu creates have inspired me to extend my drawing to create a narrative from the history of hospitality through the relations and practices associated with the date. This aspect will enrich my drawing language, summarize what I know and preserve the knowledge associated with my research concept, which I am very interested in sharing with the audience. I think that the experience of drawing on huge spaces is one of the projects which I want to address in the future but I want to do this through the concept of societal engagement which can be represented by creating social spaces through sharing drawings by participants of different ages in ways which can create harmony and forge a connection between us with more diversity and uniqueness. I think that the Drawing Room gallery supports this kind of engagement programme which makes contemporary drawing relevant and accessible to local communities, encouraging self-expression through hands-on making; I would like to contact the gallery and verify this opportunity.
In this paper, I have discussed how the traditional Saudi culture of hospitality can create a social space for participants to create a new context for this culture after it has been shifted to a new location. I have examined the date in my practices as a symbol of the Saudi hospitality culture and re-presented it in different social spaces, which will create a new coding of this culture after participants have accepted it and interacted with it in a new location. These influences of the current experiment are shown the new places, diversity, connections, relationships, cultural exchanges and a community for us; these points are still under trial and being testing by ongoing continuing research in the current context.
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