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Ahmed Mater, born in Saudi Arabia in 1979, trained as a doctor but has created art since the early 1990s. The exhibit “Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater,” now on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, represents his first solo exhibition in the United States—and it’s a genuine eye opener.
Looking at Mater’s photographs, you don’t need to know much about Saudi Arabia to know that it—and especially its holy site of Mecca—is in the midst of an epic transformation.
Look no further than Mater’s massive panorama of Mecca, in which construction cranes encircle the Grand Mosque like birds at a watering hole. The pairing of old and new is jarring, to say the least.
Other images—monumental and direct in the style of Jeff Wall, Candida Hofer, and Thomas Struth—fill out the story of transformation.
Mater documents branched walkways over-filled with pilgrims, old buildings jam-packed into the landscape and disappearing into a thick haze, endless scaffolding for new spaces to handle the crush of visitors, and a still life of a lavish chair and a bowl of fruit in an elegant hotel room that offers a front-row view of the Grand Mosque’s main sanctuary (lower right).
Mater effectively uses video to further flesh out the pilgrim’s experience. The ominously titled video loop “Pelt him!” shows stones being thrown at a wall, a ritual in which pilgrims symbolically stone the devil; by concentrating on a small section of wall and using a narrow plane of focus, but maintaining the dull roar of the crowd, Mater heightens the tension by showing only the stones, not the throwers.
Mater also uses photography to capture other portions of Saudi Arabia beyond Mecca. In one 15-image grid, he harnesses washed-out color to depict signs of human presence in the desert, some benign, such as a depot for school buses, and some unnerving, such as watchtowers and piles of barrel-shaped objects that could easily be bombs.
But Mater’s most inventive work consists of nine small wooden slide viewers, mounted side by side, in which he’s placed composite transparencies (top) that document the growth of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s largest city. The works, incorporating found images, often pair historical and modern views of the city in ways that are dreamlike and enigmatic,
Through Sept. 18 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Daily, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.