According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed observed that when one part of the body is wounded, the whole body feels distress. This idea is a metaphor: it enjoins all Muslims to look out for one another’s well-being. But for the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, the comparison applies equally to another complex organism: Mecca, the holy city.
“It’s a beautiful way to think about the city,” says Mater, who has mixed documentary and conceptual methods to think about Mecca for the past decade. Mecca Journeys, an illuminating exhibition of his video, sculpture, and large-format photography at the Brooklyn Museum, has been extended to June. Mater, 38, is a prominent figures in a Saudi art scene that is gaining visibility. Raised in Abha, near the Yemen border, he lives in Jeddah, the busy port and commercial hub that serves as a gateway to Mecca. “Being Saudi, from a Muslim family, Mecca was always the center of our life,” Mater says. But he is also trained as a physician, with a specialty in community health, and the principles of that discipline inform his art. “The way my eye works is to look to the city as a body.”
Mecca is easy to get wrong—or to see through a narrow lens. For Muslims it is a spiritual destination, a place they are expected, if able, to visit at least once in their life on the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, which occurs in the last month of the Islamic year. Between Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage, the Umrah, which one can make at any time, some 10 million foreign visitors come to Mecca each year. Religious travel drives the local economy, and Saudi authorities encourage its expansion, aiming for 30 million visitors in 2030.
For non-Muslims, forbidden from entering the city, Mecca has long been mysterious, invested with all manner of Orientalizing fears and fantasies. And when Mecca makes the world news, it is usually due to a tragic event—the seizure by extremists of the Grand Mosque in 1979, for instance, or the stampede during Hajj in September 2015 in Mina, on the city’s outskirts, which according to media estimates killed some 2,400 people.
Today, digital culture has made Mecca easier to experience vicariously, thanks to the pilgrims’ Facebook posts and Instagram stories. But the Mecca that Mater documents is different. His concern is with the city, its year-round population of close to two million, its old and new neighborhoods, and the endless building frenzy that is constantly pressuring its environment and altering its shape. Mater’s Mecca is an immense sprawl: In images and video that he makes from above, aboard a police helicopter on patrol, the city pushes up hillsides and into valleys, the landscape and structures coalescing in a field of ochres and browns. These views recalls cities with similar topographies—Mexico City, or Caracas—and make obvious the challenges of infrastructure and ecology.
Mater’s Mecca is also a vast construction site. There are fields of cranes, areas marked for demolition, decrepit old quarters overshadowed by soaring new edifices. The pressure to expand Mecca’s visitor capacity means the past is under constant threat, as everything from working-class neighborhoods to sites with historical and religious meaning falls prey to real estate development. Looking down on the Kaaba, the black cube that pilgrims clad in simple whites circumambulate in an ancient act of devotion, is the huge, unlovely Abraj al-Bait, a complex of skyscrapers housing luxury apartments, malls, and an enormous hotel.
Atop the central building’s massive clock tower, 120 floors high, is a huge crescent mounted on a pillar base. In the heart-stopping highlight of Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a video that Mater made out of footage that construction workers filmed for him, we find ourselves on girders high up as the crescent is about to be mounted. A worker harnesses himself to the piece; the crane hoists him up, a tiny figure clinging to a giant sculpture as it dangles in the dusty haze.
It is an extraordinary moment; but just as affecting are the passages of workers on the ground, filming each other, conducting mock interviews laced with friendly jibes. These men are immigrants, from around the Arab world, from North Africa, from India, from Indonesia. Mater has spent time with them, visiting their work sites, learning their lives. He pays special attention as well to Mecca’s large Rohingya community, whose presence predates the current acute stage of the repressive conflict in Myanmar. One photograph is of a street made of steps up a high escarpment in the Rohingya part of town. There are vegetable stalls at the base in the foreground; going up, wires, air conditioning units, wall murals, litter, and assorted bric-a-brac fill the vertical streetscape. This Mecca is, simply, another city of the global South.
To enter the exhibition, the visitor walks around two large standing screens with video projections that give a sense, respectively, of the drive towards Mecca from Jeddah, and of walking among the crowds at night in the holy city. The road video is particularly rich: Along the highway are industrial areas, drab outskirt zones, advertising billboards, barren desert terrain, and finally the exit for non-Muslims and other non-Mecca traffic, the spiritual exclusivity of the place marked, in Arabic and English, in the banal visual vocabulary of highway signage.
Mater’s take on Mecca is, in some ways, a dispassionate one. Pragmatic and attentive to material conditions and processes, he documents buildings and their makers, commerce from street stalls to shopping malls, the simplicity of workers’ and middle-class homes and the parvenu interiors of fancy hotels. He is no fan of the construction spree, which has transformed the city’s aspect and leveled many of its landmarks in his lifetime. His distaste aims less at the sometimes vulgar esthetics that at the bigger problems: Neglect of context, erasure of history. “I expect much better architecture in this location,” he says. “It should be more related to the land, and the social fabric of the people.”
A large and beautiful book, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, offers an expansive set of Mater’s photographs of Mecca; its subtitle denotes his concern with acknowledging the labor and process of transformation while maintaining a record beyond the bulldozers’ reach. In some ways a preservationist, Mater collects objects in Mecca and installs them as sculptures, including one, in the Brooklyn Museum show, made of discarded old window frames painted in lively colors.
But this is not a pessimistic project. Rather, Mater is taking stock of the city, with a lyrical approach to photography and videography, attentive to both the built environment and its occupants, that adds a subtle political force to the work of documentation, and quietly suggests some possibilities. “Mecca has a lot of things gone, but a lot can be saved,” Mater says. The authorities have been responsive, he says. “The mayor of Mecca wants to do a lot of education about preserving Mecca so it can be an environmental and truly Islamic city.”
Mater has some influence: He is the first director of the Misk Art Institute, a new initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s omnipresent crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to develop arts hubs in the country and run exhibitions abroad. “There is a big energy of change,” Mater says, citing social reforms, such as women being finally allowed to drive, and the pressure of generational change. Mecca may be an inherently conservative site, with worship and pilgrimage inexorably woven into its meaning. But Mater reveals it—perhaps even to its residents—as something dynamic, contemporary, universal; a place materially and culturally connected to every other place. “I’m talking about Mecca as a city in the world,” he says. “This project for me is like a voice.”