Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys at the Brooklyn Museum

Art Scene

Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys at the Brooklyn Museum

The exhibition, Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys, at the Brooklyn Museum is both timely and sublime. Featuring nearly a decade’s worth of images shot by the doctor turned artist, Ahmed Mater, the exhibition documents the changing landscape of the holy city of Mecca. As skyscraper hotels and the expansion of the sacred Masjid al-Haram (the Grand Mosque) demand the destruction and reconstruction of the ancient city, a process of displacement, replacement and uncertainty has become an undeniable aspect of daily life. The city’s year-round inhabitants, pilgrims who visit for hajj week and for umrah (a pilgrimage that can be taken at any time of year), and Muslims around the world who hold the sacred site in their hearts and minds, are all central to Mater’s project.

Ahmed Mater (Saudi, born 1979). Ka‘aba, 2015. C-print, 71 x 106 ½ in. (180.3 x 270.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana. © Ahmed Mater

A native of Saudi Arabia and a Muslim, Mater’s intentions and concerns as an artist are inextricably linked to his background as a doctor, as he writes, “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.”

Ahmed Mater (Saudi, born 1979). Neighborhood-Stairway, 2015. C-print, 106 x 71 in. (269.3 x 180.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana. © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys is based on a book of approximately 500 images with text, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, by Ahmed Mater with editor Catherine David. In the exhibition, wall text by Mater, photography, and video anchor the exhibition and coalesce into an immersive virtual experience. A thoughtful, poetic quality unfolds as a result of the curatorial decision to make the scale of images and video screens almost uniformly larger than life.

Ahmed Mater (Saudi, born 1979). Gas Station Leadlight, 2013. C-print, 60 x 90 in. (152.4 x 228.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana. © Ahmed Mater

The first room of the exhibition, lit only by video rolling on large screens amidst a muted cacophony of sounds of daily life, greets visitors and invites them on the road to Mecca, literally. The first screen features footage that appears to be shot from the passenger seat of car with the window rolled down as it moves along one of the main highways that takes pilgrims to the holy city. Desert, development, satellites, and billboards, mixed with archival footages of old cars, camels, and communal food stations from pilgrimages of yesteryear, will give the attentive visitor a visceral sense of the magnitude of the journey. The next screen features thousands of pilgrims on foot walking through the streets of the city, while a light chatter, car horns and assorted sounds of city life fill an audio soundtrack.

Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys Installation Image. Photo by Jonathan Dorado

In another room, a small screen on a sidewall features footage and sound from inside the cockpit of a helicopter, while a large screen displays aerial views of Mecca and a new hotel complex with views of the Grand Mosque. From there, a series of gorgeous large scale photographs capture both scenes from the old city of Mecca and its modernization. Epic views shot at a distance use modern architecture and infrastructure development as graphic compositional elements. Smaller photographs capture the daily life and ordinary people at the heart of Mater’s project. Mater’s documentation of this transformative period in the history of the city is also engaged in a metaphorical or metaphysical question: What impact will these changes have on the mental, physical and spiritual health of the global Muslim community?

Ahmed Mater (Saudi, born 1979). Mountain of Light, 2015. C-print, 20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm). Courtesy of the artist. © Ahmed Mater

Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys offers both personal, humanitarian insight and a critical distance that will engage both students of Islam and those with little awareness of its culture and history. For example, culturally, the 20 different nationalities of Muslim immigrants who live and work in Mecca alongside the original family tribes of Mecca and the Saudi businessmen leading its transformation; or, critically, an exploration of the 21st century reality of what Mater describes as a “materialistic, consumer-driven understanding of urban space.”

Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through April 8, 2018.