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After the excitement of a week in the Maldives, it was back to the hum-drum of normal life, or as my late mother would have said, “auld claes and porridge” (back to old clothes and basic food).

But life in Riyadh is never hum-drum, these days there is always something new happening. For example, Elaine and a group of her lady friends went off to visit the National Museum which is near the oldest part of Riyadh. We had visited once before, in 2017 and were spectacularly underwhelmed by its offering. But this time there was a special exhibition on Islamic writings and calligraphy. As usual, the Arab News has an informative article on what Elaine reported to be a very interesting event.

‘Artists have been sharing their thoughts about the “mesmerizing and elegant” beauty and spirituality of Arabic calligraphy, and the importance of the art form, ahead of the opening on Wednesday of an exhibition in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi conceptual artist Othman Al-Khuzaim believes that global interest in the art of Arabic calligraphy has grown in recent years, and this can be attributed to increased awareness of its beauty. “The general interest of people in calligraphy has led them to show appreciation for Arabic calligraphy, with all its mesmerizing and elegant shapes and forms,” he said.
“Arabic calligraphy stands witness to beauty, which is depicted by Arabic calligraphists on walls inside the Two Holy Mosques to add more spirituality to the holy places.”

Describing Arabic calligraphy as one of the most prominent forms of visual art, Al-Khuzaim said he often recommends it to people and encourages them to enjoy and appreciate it even if they cannot read the language or understand the meaning of the words.
Script and Calligraphy: A Timeless Journey, which opens on Wednesday at the National Museum of Riyadh and runs until Aug. 21, is a good place for newcomers to the art form to start, or for those who are already familiar with it to learn more about its history, from its origins right up the present day.

Organized by the Ministry of Culture to showcase the history of Arabic calligraphy, the 1,500-square-meter exhibition highlights the development of the Arabic script from its very beginnings, along with the relationship between calligraphy, contemporary art and artificial intelligence (AI).
This exceptional journey through history features input from Saudi and international master calligraphers, contemporary artists and designers. It begins with the advent of written communication on the Arabian Peninsula nearly 1,700 years ago and traces the development of scripts engraved on stone and included in linear paintings, manuscripts and other objects across the Islamic world.

The exhibition brings the story right up to date by considering the most modern applications of Arabic calligraphy, for example in fashion, design and even AI. Alongside the classic artworks on display, visitors will find an AI machine, developed by Egyptian artist and designer Haytham Nawar, that allows them to produce a new pictographic language on a video screen.
At the other end of the timeline of Arabic calligraphy, the exhibition includes one of the oldest surviving pages of the Holy Qur’an, dating back to the second century AH/8th century AD. There is also a selection of Qur’an manuscripts, including the renowned Blue Qur’an and Mushaf Al-Madinah, and a specially designed manuscript presented by Obvious, a collective of French AI researchers and artists.

Abdelrahman El-Shahed, a calligrapher and contemporary artist involved in the exhibition, said such events are important because they enhance the communication between professional Arab calligraphists and enthusiasts, who view the preservation of the art form as an important way to show pride in their religion and nations. They also help bring calligraphists together to continue to develop an ancient art, he added.
“We are glad that the Mohammed bin Salman Global Center for Arabic Calligraphy has been launched,” said El-Shahed. “It will definitely help in promoting and preserving Arabic calligraphy around the world, and giving it the appreciation it deserves.”

Saudi authorities announced in April last year that the Dar Al-Qalam Center in Madinah would be developed to become a global platform for calligraphers from all over the world and was renamed in honor of the crown prince. Arabic calligraphy in the region also receives great support from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, who last year launched the Year of Arabic Calligraphy initiative to raise awareness and interest in the art form.’

Elaine was particularly impressed with the Artificial Intelligence installation where the artist Michel Paysant had created items by using only his eyes, which were tracked by a robotic device and transferred to canvas. This allowed him, and will allow other artists who cotton onto this idea to work remotely from the actual installation.

It’s a shame that a city with 8 million inhabitants has very few real museums. In addition to the National Museum there seem only to be 4 others. These, according to the Ministry of Culture’s website are:

·       the Al Masmak Fortress (the old castle in the old centre of Riyadh), which is open and free to visit, was founded in 1865 and tells the history of the takeover of the city by King Saud’s forces in 1902;

·       the Currency Museum, which is located within the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority building in Riyadh. Visits can be arranged by telephone appointment to SAMA;

·       the Archaeological Museum, which is located within King Saud University, and has artefacts recovered from digs in the Kingdom, including from Al Ula. Entry is free, and this sounds worth a visit;

·       The Saqr Aljazeera Aviation Museum, which is housed on military land and visible from the Eastern Ring Road in Riyadh. It apparently houses Royal Saudi Air Force and civilian aircraft exhibits. An ex-Saudia Lockheed Tristar is visible from the main road. One day we will visit that too.

But Riyadh is a very recent city in terms of world history, and its unfair of me to complain of only 5 museums, when I have only actually visited 2 of them.

In addition to the museums is the old Diriyah area, which is a World Heritage site and this is located to the west of the city and on the site of the older At Turaif settlement. It is being restored sympathetically to house modern buildings within its shells. So that’s 3 that I have visited then, a 50% success rate. London, a city with a similar sized population to Riyadh has more than 170 museums, and I guess that I have visited only 10 or so of these. I can’t pretend to be a serious culture vulture, and I shouldn’t belittle Riyadh either.

Saudi is a very young and modern country in many respects, and has hopefully plenty of time ahead of it to celebrate and exhibit its past. If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion, a museum of Bedouin nomadic lifestyle and culture somewhere on the outskirts of the city might be an interesting offering.

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