Incorporating photography, video, and sculpture, Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys presents the Saudi artist’s nearly decade-long project to document unprecedented recent changes in the Islamic holy city.
In 2016 Mater published the book Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, which takes its main title from an ancient name for the region surrounding the city. With more than five hundred photographs by the artist, as well as his own written reflections on Mecca, his book offers both a nuanced portrait of the contemporary city and Mater’s critical views of it.
Focusing on Mecca not only as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage for millions of Muslims from around the world, but also as a vibrant, twenty-first-century urban center grappling with the social complexities that come with enormous growth, Mater reveals the cultural dynamics at work in the city today.
Based on the thematic structure of the book, the exhibition Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys features large-scale images of the city, including the Ka‘aba—the monument at the center of the sacred Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque—along with more intimate images of the city’s inhabitants and visitors, as well as related videos and sculpture.
All the commentaries throughout the exhibition are excerpts from Mater’s writings. His texts appear in English, as adapted for this occasion under the artist’s supervision. Copies of Desert of Pharan are available at the reading table in the third gallery.
Mater was born in 1979 in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, and grew up in Abha, the capital of the Asir region, near the border with Yemen. He trained as a physician and practiced community medicine for a number of years before becoming an artist who has focused his inquiry on Mecca and the lives of its present-day communities.
Mater lives and works between Riyadh, Jeddah, and Abha.
This exhibition is curated by Catherine J. Morris, Sackler Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, with Allie Rickard, Curatorial Assistant, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum.
Like few other cities on earth, Mecca seems to buckle under the weight of its own dramatic symbolism. It is a hallowed site revered by millions. For centuries it has been a point of perpetual immigration. Yet over the last few years the city has been recast, reworked, and ultimately reconfigured. Mecca is being given a makeover.
The works on view here speak about Mecca, but they also speak more broadly about urban issues such as housing for soaring populations, both for residents and migrant groups, and the encroachment of private land development on public spaces. Mecca is a city subject to the same social and infrastructural forces facing every major urban center in the world. Because of its highly symbolic existence, however, in the holy city these municipal issues are intensified and cast in a special light.
The cycle of demolition and construction brings a new set of concerns, as Mecca is rarely seen as a living city with its own inhabitants and historical development through time. Instead, it is seen almost exclusively as a site of pilgrimage, as a timeless, symbolic place. The denial of the real city, with its typical urban problems (traffic, lack of public space, strained infrastructure), allows those who preside over its destiny to implement the current plans for massive transformation without considering its inhabitants or its past. There is a dissonance today for many of those who live in the city or maintain an emotional stake in its future regarding what this place is, what it could be, and what it should be.
My interest in Mecca stems from my background in community medicine, which addresses the health not only of individuals but also of populations as a whole. Modern community health is not merely about the eradication of disease; it is related to spiritual health, to productivity, and, increasingly, to social justice and equity. Thus, community health development is essential to overall socioeconomic development and quality of life.
The Arabic word for “community” is ummah, which has become synonymous with the wider community of Muslims around the world, all of whom are obliged to visit Mecca at least once in their lifetime, as one of the five pillars of Islam. And so, my interest in recording this moment of transformation in Mecca is founded on my interest in questioning what impact these changes will have on the mental, physical, and spiritual health of the global Muslim community. It has become important for me to identify with this place and to understand how this constellation of changes, as well as the forces that are shaping it, will affect the community of which I am a part.
Road to Mecca
Those making the journey to Mecca for the hajj, the pilgrimage that is obligatory for every Muslim at least once in their lifetime, have come from everywhere. Pilgrims approach their destination flanked by the sentinels of billboards; between unrelenting, sprawling deserts; through the narrow passage between rocky mountains. The journey is made by any means possible: previously, they came by camel, on foot, or by ship; today they arrive by car, airplane, and ocean liner. Although the practical means have changed, they come and they will keep coming, compelled by the hope of accessing the highest possible earthly experience. Yet before embarking on the journey, each and every one of them has considered and committed to writing a will, their final wishes. The rare interior experience remains unaltered from generation to generation, as every pilgrim brims with a mix of anticipated potential for the sublime and the insidious underlying fear that this could also be the road to the end.
I made my first pilgrimage to Mecca in early childhood. I returned as an adult, when I was already a practicing physician and artist, in order to start research on what would become my book Desert of Pharan. From a distance, I had read in the media about the changes taking place, but it was not until I witnessed firsthand the transformation of the city—at that time in the midst of redevelopment—that I could begin to conceive of their inevitable impact. Reflecting on combined histories, not only of the communities who had once lived there, but of the wider, global community of people who, over the centuries, had made the pilgrimage to this site, I was compelled to document the rapidly disintegrating and soon-to-be-lost narratives of the place and its people. As I returned again and again, repeatedly taking the same road from Jeddah to Mecca, the journey was always to a site simultaneously shared and exclusive, collectively known yet with an increasingly remote and inaccessible history.
The speed and breadth of Mecca’s transformation cause us to reflect on the city’s social mechanisms and the ongoing, symbiotic relationship between demolition and construction. Above all, its rapid change has concentrated the imaginative energy of Mecca’s inhabitants on what will remain once the work is complete.
Mecca is a physical and symbolic home to a community spread across the world. From permanent residents and the transitory pilgrims who flock there annually for hajj week and for umrah (the pilgrimage that can be taken at any time of the year), to the far-flung international population of Muslims in whom the imagined, symbolic power of the city resides—all have a strong emotional attachment to this place. All have highly personal bonds shaped by collective consciousness and individual experience.
The recent changes in the city have precipitated a split between generations. As the sketched outline of a new city is overlaid onto the demolished infrastructure of the past, the older city is eradicated. The city is recast, dominated by a more technologically advanced, materialistic, consumer-driven understanding of urban space. What is not yet clear is the impact this will have on the emotional and psychological well-being of the inhabitants of the city.
Living City versus Imagined City
The city I arrive in is not the city I anticipated. Since early childhood, I have constructed Mecca as a fond and distant memory from my own experiences and from the indecipherable mass of others’ evocations. The poignant memories of family members have suffused my memories of the place with both adventure and comfort.
Because it is rarely perceived as a living city, the idea of Mecca remains unencumbered by the reality of its own inhabitants and historical development. Yet inhabitants and all they entail are an inevitable and swelling reality: for centuries, pilgrims of all backgrounds and statuses have arrived here and never left. These truths are diminished by a city that sustains its rarefied identity, perceived almost exclusively as no more and no less than the timeless, symbolic city.
The denial of the real city is a disavowal of typical urban issues and the many individual stories that play out here. In this imagined space, those who preside over the city’s development are freed from the burden of practicalities, and they dream wildly, implementing plans for massive transformation. These grand visions are proclaimed from giant billboards, in whose shadows the unacknowledged lives of the city continue to play out.
Desert of Pharan Desert of Pharan was a vast project. I looked at every aspect of life in Mecca. Abandoning my own preconceptions and beliefs, I engaged in a prolonged process of capturing everything, from the gates of the city to friendships between laborers and pilgrims within it, from the exuberance of the luxury hotels to the layers of social history entangled within the original family tribes. I wanted the scale of the body of work itself to suggest the complexities of the city. While some iconic images emerged through the multiyear process, it was important to me that they exist nestled within hundreds of others. The place isn’t something that can be caught in a handful of scenes; it needs the layering of stories and of details.
These images capture the daily lives of some of the more than twenty different nationalities of Muslim immigrants who live and work in Mecca, both drawn and pushed toward the city from Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, alongside Saudi businessmen and the original family tribes of Mecca.
I lived for a time with Rohingya immigrants in the Burmawi district; I became friends with construction workers tasked with transforming the holy city. The atmospheres of these neighborhoods are saturated with stories of people’s lives unfolding in the uncertainty of redevelopment.