The Genteel
October 28, 2020


Evolution of Man (Source: Flickr, Ahmed Mater)

From Da Vinci's anatomical drawings to Damien Hirst's Pharmacy installation, art and medicine have long shared a close relationship. As a trained medical doctor, Ahmed Mater takes this connection even further by adding the one further element he believes is necessary to fill the space between scientific knowledge and the mortality of the human organism: god.

As a Saudi national, the notion of god has been intrinsic to Mater's culture and upbringing, and so it is no wonder that he brings it to his art. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this fusion of ideas can be seen in his most famous work, "X-Ray Illuminations", from his Prognosis series. This piece, which was purchased by the British Museum, depicts X-ray images surrounded by Islamic drawings and calligraphy. In place of the human heart in the X-ray, viewers find the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam. Mater says he used his own experience of religion for this piece, which he considers "a simple self-expression drawn from daily life."

...the storm of protest that followed and the demands that he should be "made an example of" cast doubt on just how much freedom of expression Saudi artists really have.

The Prognosis series is also comprised of the "Evolution of Man", a wry commentary on Saudi Arabia's (and, in fact, the world's) reliance on oil. Four X-ray images slowly morph from a gas pump to a suicidal man. This work is undoubtedly intended to provoke and shock many devout Muslims, for not only do they rarely believe in evolution (instead believing that man came to the Earth as a perfect, intact creation by God), but also because suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam. The main message here seems to be a global one, however, condemning the age of consumption as a suicidal one which will inevitably lead to the demise of man. Indeed, having grown up on a farm, Mater is something of an environmentalist and anti-consumerist, as seen in another of Mater's series, "Yellow Cow", whose array of kindergarten colours suggest the sanitization and exploitation of nature for commercial purposes. Notably, however, there are still religious references here too, as the piece was inspired by a Koranic verse: "Surely she is a yellow cow. Her colour is intensely yellow, diving delight to the beholders." (Surat al-Barqara, verse 69).

"Magnetism" once again combines and employs the more directly Islamic image of the Kaaba, as represented by a black magnet block surrounded by iron shavings, which symbolize worshippers. The artist believes that this work expresses the emotions that are evoked in performing the circumambulation of the Kaaba and the salvation that can be found in religion: there is a strong attraction, and yet a repulsion at the same time, which forms the movement of the "pilgrims" around the Kaaba. A contradiction, but Mater claims this reflects his own state of mind when he makes the Tawaf, or circumambulation, himself.

(Source: Ahmed Mater Website).

Such strong religious messages have not deterred Mater's popularity in the West. Often thought of as a window to the normally obscure culture of Saudi Arabia, he has had influential shows at the world's most important exhibitions, ranging from FIAC in Paris to the Venice Biannale. However, it is his countrymen that seem to have the most potential to be offended by his work: recently there was much controversy about his work appearing at a show in Israel. Although Mater had nothing to do with this installation (the show was brought to the country by a private American collector who bought his work), the storm of protest that followed and the demands that he should be "made an example of" cast doubt on just how much freedom of expression Saudi artists really have.

Yet, Mater remains diplomatically silent on this issue, as always planted delicately between the subjective and the scientific. His probable prognosis? Cultural differences and answers to the big questions can be best cured holistically, through large doses of artistic dialogue mixed with dry humour, tolerance, and time.  



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