If there is one person who can be credited with presenting Saudi Arabia to the world from a fresh perspective, it might be the environmentalist, nature enthusiast, and photographer Moath Alofi. While the rise of Mohammed bin Salman and the long-awaited lifting of women’s driving ban have kept the kingdom on the international agenda, the narrative framework, in which tyranny, patriarchy, and war prevail, has remained largely unaltered. Viewed through Alofi’s lens, however, Saudi Arabia expands from a political entity to a place, shuddering with imposing geographies, unexamined histories, and architectural oddities.
In The Remnants, Alofi’s solo exhibition at Bahrain’s Bin Matar House last Ramadan, viewers were invited to contemplate the mountainous surroundings of Medina in stark anthracite and charcoal grays. There was no resistance here, no political commentary; in its place, Alofi sought to calmly inform the viewer that this, too, is Saudi Arabia. Much more than a dyad of hastily built city and oil-rich desert, the artist spoke of ‘moonscapes’: “The scapes, be it landscapes, desertscapes, even moonscapes, offer a multiplicity of possibilities as to where their locality could be,” his gallery statement read. Elsewhere, Alofi has written that he “didn’t choose to document this by chance; my love for Madinah runs deep.”
His aerial photographs are partly abstractionist and partly archaeological in nature, documenting a series of man-made wall formations believed to be up to seven thousand years old. Placed in the same hall as these photographs were specimens, both photographed and material, from his ‘Doors of Barlik’ collection. Here, Alofi sought to document a process of architectural erasure resulting from recent state-led urban development initiatives that have seen 12,500 homes from Medina’s ancient town center forcibly bought and demolished to make way for the new. Most of these frames were filled with a single colorful, idiosyncratic Medina door, its charm interrupted by a spray-painted number announcing its selection for removal. As with the aerial photographs, Alofi’s gaze remains a forensic one: free of sentimentality, his photographs pay sober witness to the precedents of human displacement and cultural destruction. And in this—its subjection to top-down gentrification—Medina truly does become indiscernible from other ancient cities; the bonds that unite are not always heartening.
The final element of Alofi’s Remnants exhibition was the social. As representatives of his native region he chose shepherds, most of them South Asian. Venerating them as custodians of ancient Arab traditions, he made no reference to their migrant status, nor did he draw attention to any contrast between the ethnic Arab and the non-Arab. In so doing Alofi affirmed, again without affectation, their role in the maintenance of Medina, not only in a coldly demographic or economic sense, toiling to fashion a future from steel rods and glass, but in an invaluable historical sense, too.
While The Remnants has since ended, Alofi remains productive at home and abroad; in 2017 his work was displayed at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, the Cities of Conviction exhibition in Salt Lake City, and Saudi Cultural Week in Moscow. Represented by Athr Art and working as part of the collective Edge of Arabia, Alofi is also the founder of Erth, a team of intrepid photographers dedicated to the exploration of the Saudi Arabian landscape.
A country is more than its sociopolitical malaises, it turns out.