Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

How Ithra is connecting the world through art

Explore Saudi's "all-purpose cultural hub."

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By Georgie Bradley

Ithra in Saudi Arabia. Image: Courtesy.

There is a persistent fallacy that has been lurking about the art world in the Arab world for years – not least with relation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To say that art is a nascent sphere is concurrently common and incorrect. It has always existed, but is now getting the right airtime. While the region is flanked by creative spaces now for art and its consumers to feed and flourish, it’s only been in the last few decades that art – in all its variance – has taken on a hub status in the region.

“Grassroots initiatives were being birthed in the 1970s in the Kingdom and led to where we stand today in the cultural fabric,” says Laila Al-Faddagh, Head of Museums at Ithra – the behemoth window into a global and holistic art experience based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, pioneered by Saudi Aramco as part of its commitment to the development of the country.

Ithra, by Abdullah Al-Rashid’s (Head of Programs at Ithra) own admission is “not your typical museum experience; it is a multi-platform and multidimensional space,” he says. Ithra houses  exhibitions, galleries, a state-of-the-art cinema (Ithra is the largest producer of films in the Kingdom, having made 21 films in the last two years) a children’s museum and a fleet of digital offerings.

Ithra stands tall in this new wave cultural economy precipitating across the Kingdom. “Art has always existed,” asserts Abdullah, “but it has historically depended on private efforts between sporadic individuals and institutions. This fresh momentum for art is leveraged by Saudi Vision 2030.” But Ithra has been weaving itself into the scene for over a decade. And while it has been carving an indelible mark, the arts have gained new cache as an essential tool for our mental wellbeing and quality of life, pushed forward by the powers of social media and its many access points. “The intangible gains of the arts is firmly recognized now,” says Abdullah.

Abdullah Al-Rashid, Head of Programs at Ithra. Image: Courtesy.

The inception for Ithra came about in 2008. At the tail end of 2016, Ithra officially opened its doors and has been a driver for the country’s arts infrastructure, cultivating communities within communities, casting its net in the arts wide enough to include “aspiring artists who haven’t yet been exposed, artists who want to professionalize their hobby, and the professionals who want to master their craft,” adds Abdullah. The coveted Ithra Art Prize awards its recipient USD$100,000 and a multitude of platforms to showcase their work – the competition is open to nationals and residents of the Kingdom alike. Add to that Ithra has over 200 bilingual workshops across a number of creative disciplines.

Among its founding pillars, Ithra seeks to have a cultural conversation with the world. “Ithra was not established to be Saudi-centric,” explains Abdullah, “it’s about inviting the world in and for our world to be shared through stories.” In February, just before the pandemic shut down the world, Ithra had brought in a Vietnamese cultural show to develop “a higher interest in all kinds of art” so that artists tap into their capacities and capabilities as culture changers.

Ultimately, the arts is about the people who make it, the people who engage with it, and the crossover between. A potent part of Ithra’s legacy is how exhibitions, programs and curations are made for the people, by the people.

The facilities at Ithra include: Idea Lab, Library, Ithra Theater, Cinema, Ithr Museum, Children’s Museum, Energy Exhibit, Archives, The Great Hall and the Knowledge Tower.

“When we we initiated the Beauty and Identity Exhibition in the Islamic Art Gallery, we conducted audience research to grasp what it is people want to experience. This exhibition has 150 objects from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art showing art from the Islamic world from China to north Africa,” says Laila. Ithra doesn’t curate into a void – there is carefully considered dialogue to circumvent cultural insensitivities – although there have not been any run-ins of this nature thus far.  

“It isn’t our goal to be accommodating,” says Abdullah, but it’s “not about being provocative either,” he adds. While Ithra “pushes the envelope, the storytelling is at the core of everything that is explored and developed.”

By the time you read this, Ithra will be fully “back with caution and back with excitement” as the punchy words precede its online landing page. Adjusting to the new realities of a COVID-19 world has meant little change to Ithra’s content, but more change on the operational side of things. “Who knows how long this pandemic will last? We are looking at how to make our exhibitions safe, like by not having labels on objects and using your phone to find out more information [instead],” says Laila.

Despite its doors momentarily closing during the peak of the pandemic, this period actually pushed Ithra’s momentum even further, as far as virtual experiences go. “COVID-19 presented an opportunity to accelerate what was already in the pipeline,” says Laila.

Laila Al-Faddagh, Head of Museums at Ithra. Image: Courtesy.

Quarantine put the wheels in motion on Ithra Connect – the ‘take home’ sensorial experience of what is currently on offer across the variety of spaces. “Our engagement soared to over one million viewers, which really speaks to how much we as a society indulge and indeed need highly immersive content. Ithra Connect gives you access to galleries, debates, exhibitions, theatre, and podcasts,” adds Abdullah.

During this unusual time, many questions have been put out into the ether – especially from curious and confused children. Ithra published local author Nahed Alshawa’s book on the novel Coronavirus (alongside a podcast recording of it, too) for children who are likely to be perplexed by having to see grandparents only through glass, or not being allowing to actualize the instinct for a hug.

It would be remiss to not lean into the (ongoing) effects of the pandemic and creating artistic expression out of it. With the exhaustive amount of time spent with ourselves and our possessions, there is a heightened awareness and feeling towards what makes us, us.

Ithra is currently in the process of running a global call out for people to take photos of objects that they have developed an affinity with during lockdown to capture the human fragilities, oddities, and even humour in this experience. “We want to hear the stories of how ‘things’ have transcended meaning in our lives,” says Abdullah, “as it will create a sense of solidarity and unity over something that has affected every single person in the world.”

To find out more about Ithra visit .

Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.