Having lived overseas and away from my hometown of Manhattan for decades, I was determined to explore Brooklyn, a borough I had never known, and its cultural gems.
The Brooklyn Museum is certainly one of them. This museum accommodates an assortment of shows from the pop icon of David Bowie to the permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s 1970’s collaborative work The Dinner Party. On the same floor as this feminist beacon is a decorative furniture recreation of antebellum South Carolina plantation rooms: mahogany tables, four-poster beds, chintz and all. Turn the corner, and you enter into the holy city of Mecca as displayed by the Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater.
Ahmed Mater’s show Mecca Journeys is a mixture of photography, video, and installations created since 2008, giving a dizzying perspective on the annual mass Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Shown from the lens of Mater – a physician turned artist –we get not just an anthropological view of the pilgrims in transit but also a perspective on the mass construction involved to accommodate the increasing throngs of worshippers who travel to Mecca every year. As non-Muslims are forbidden to enter the city center, the viewer is given a privileged vantage.
The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage every Muslim is obligated to take at least once during their lifetime (if they can afford it.) In 2017 the number of pilgrims swelled to over 2 million. In searing heat, with pilgrims coming from every corner of the globe, one ponders: How does the Saudi Kingdom cope?
Perhaps Ahmed Mater’s show is an effort to answer this. We are given a mix of beautiful aerial shots of the monuments and also grittier images of a city under construction. There are photographs of pilgrims surrounding the places of worship, abstracted into geometric shapes in their multitude. This visual order is challenged by videos of large buildings crumbling during demolition and images of dust-covered laborers on worksites.
The show is arranged like a procession, greeting us with noise and large-format videos. The video “Road to Mecca” (2017) presents a passenger’s perspective from an open car window, passing sandy hills, trucks, vans, white tents in the distance, palm groves, and dusty landscapes with lone buildings. The video is interspersed with a black and white vintage film of pilgrims in robes with umbrellas riding on donkeys. Closer to the final destination, there are highway signs for Mecca and the landscape changes from desert to urban. Buildings and hospital signs pass by - even the McDonald’s golden arches make an appearance. We pass vans overflowing with smiling white-robed passengers and construction workers interspersed with pilgrim pedestrians, walking in the same direction as our car and passenger-cameraman, as if collectively drawn toward Mecca.
There is nighttime noise, drums, a close-up video shot of a bare-chested man smiling and drumming. There are men in white robes dancing on carpets. The mood is joyous, and the viewer feels included in the celebrations.
After the large videos, smaller photographs line the wall. Instead of Mecca’s noisy exteriors, we get interior views from an opulent hotel room. “Room with a View” ( 2013) shows us a leather-bound book, a tray with hotel stationery and a remote control directed at a large screen of the city's clock tower. Burgundy pillows perch tidily on the bed, which is flanked by reading lamps, a phone, a plant by the window: all the creature comforts of the weary traveler.
There is a sparse elegance in this room with its magnificent view over the illuminated and cube-shaped Kaaba, located at the center of Mecca’s most important mosque. According to the caption, rooms in hotels surrounding the Kaaba have a price tag in the thousands per night.
In the video "Leaves Fall in All Seasons" (2013) the focus is on less comfortable aspects of Mecca. We are shown demolition work and debris. We see the contractors, the builders, the masons, the electricians hailed from foreign countries such as Pakistan. Filmed by the workers themselves, the video lets us hear their banter, references to Facebook, teasing camaraderie. The artist wants us to recognize that these dusty workers and discarded buildings are all part of the process of creating the spectacular.
The effect of the spectacle and the holy is most palpably felt in the video “Throwing Stones at the Devil” (2012). The screen, nearly 6 feet wide, shows pilgrims on both sides throwing stones into a large cavity with three massive pillars. The hum of rocks falling overlaps with repetitive and opposing sounds of people walking past at the fringes. The interplay of sounds, motions of hands throwing, tumbling stones and people passing collectively is mesmerizing.
I am drawn to the last work, “Mecca Windows” (2013-ongoing). Over 20 windows take up an entire wall: discarded items assembled by the artist in Mecca. The careful coloring and hand-painted quality show us the tactile artifacts of construction and then, with their history, destruction. As Mater explains in the caption: “Harvesting them from the rubble of the old city became an homage to what I imagined was there before.”
This impressive display creates a decorative design of lines, shapes and colors; the windows are Mater's attempt to make order out of destruction, a pattern out of the wreckage. In recycling the displaced windows as art, Mater expresses faith in the process of construction amidst Islam’s most holy of sites.
Ahmed Mater is an artist of stature in his home country, named the director of the ambitious Misk Art Institute by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. This allegiance between artist and state makes me ponder. Does Mater have complete freedom of expression? As far as I can see, the show makes no mention of a large number of deaths in 2015 from overcrowding at the Hajj.
In any case, Mater reveals both the power of the faithful and, among the dust and rubble, a certain fragility in the building of the monumental. Though not dissident art, this show is provocative in its depiction of the workers and the construction lying within the pilgrimage’s periphery. Assisted by the simplified geometry of “Mecca Windows,” I leave the gallery feeling enlightened and somehow liberated from the throngs, clamor and press of people depicted in the videos and photographs. Though not all of the images are “beautiful,” together they create a collective atmosphere of piety and grace. This is a show well worth the journey to Brooklyn.
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys, The Brooklyn Museum, through June 17 2018
The Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy, Brooklyn, NY 11238