Mecca is world-renowned as the holiest city in the Islamic world. Every year, millions of pilgrims make long and often arduous journeys to worship there. Now, it is experiencing an unprecedented – and perhaps uncontrollable – rate of growth. Saudi artist Ahmed Mater (b.1979) has spent the last ten years photographing this surge in size, and the results are currently on display at Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Large-scale change to the built environment typically goes hand-in-hand with a sense of loss and a desire to document before it is too late. Both of these sentiments are expressed articulately here: Neighborhood–Girl on way to School (2012) shows children walking through an area that has been completely demolished in recent years. The disruption caused by the expansion is perhaps most stark when viewed through these quotidian routines: something apparently so ordinary can be lost forever. Mater describes “recording my place in this moment of transformation, after which things may never be the same again.” He expresses a deep need to plot this change visually in order to understand it, and to be able to assess the significance of its impact upon the wider community.
It would be easy to forget, in this symbolic site of worship, that it is also a year-round home to many. It is a holy place, but also a modern urban centre. Seeking to explore these “complex cultural dynamics”, images such as Neighborhood–Stairway (2015) offer an insight into the rapidly changing nature of everyday life here. It shows the Burmawi district, where a high proportion of immigrants and migrant workers live, at high risk of becoming homeless in the wake of the continual destruction of old dwellings as the city expands. But, as the work expresses, this somewhat bleak reality is constantly at odds with the enrapture of the pilgrims and the deep histories embedded in the stones of Mecca. These “shades and layers” are eloquently explored throughout this timely, insightful exhibition.
At Brooklyn Museum until 8 April. Find out more here.
1. Ahmed Mater, Gas Station Leadlight (2013). Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Continua.