From the Real to the Symbolic City
Drawing on his studies in religion and medicine, Ahmed Mater works in a variety of media, including experimental painting, performance, installations, and photography. Throughout his practice, he maintains a critical eye on the dramatic changes taking place in Saudi Arabia today. His works often resonate with the tension between religious tradition and the realities of contemporary Saudi Arabian life.
For the photographic series Desert of Pharan (2011–13), Mater spent a year living in Mecca, gaining unique access to its inhabitants and the many migrant workers rebuilding the city. Under the pressure of real estate development, growing numbers of pilgrims, and the transformation of sacred spaces, Mecca is rapidly becoming a global city of travelers, businesspeople, and immigrant laborers. In Mater’s words, the “real city” is being replaced by a new “symbolic city.”
Photographing from within the towering new buildings or over the hills surrounding the Grand Mosque, Mater surveys the stunning scale of urban destruction and reconstruction. From the Real to the Symbolic City presents an expansive view of the old city. The density and scale of daily life that have characterized Mecca for centuries disappear into a horizon obscured by the heavy, gray haze of the new city under construction. In contrast to the past represented in From the Real to the Symbolic City, Nature Morte offers a view from within the center of Mecca. Overlooking the Grand Mosque, the image focuses attention on the interior of a luxurious hotel room. In both images, Mater’s view of his subject becomes a frank commentary on social and spatial change at the center of the Islamic world.