Sculpting a Saudi vision

Thursday, 20th February 2020 — By John Gulliver

Isabel Langtry_Riyadh 1

Hampstead School of Art principal Isabel Langtry in Riyadh working on her sculpture

I AM drawn into an extraordinary scene, sent to me, showing footage of dozens of men and women, drilling, grinding and polishing beautiful marble of different colours, and as dust clouds the air the singing symphonic sound of the machines make one believe one has become part of a film set.

It isn’t, of course. It is a large open space in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia where, under the auspices of the Saudi Arabian government, 20 internationally known sculptors had been invited to create sculptures on a mass scale that will eventually be placed in different parts of the capital.

And one of them is Isabel Langtry, principal of the Hampstead School of Art, who was requested by the Saudis to create a sculpture after they spotted one of her works exhibited in Chile which I mentioned in this column last year.

A well-known Iraqi sculptor, Ali Jabbar, who lives in London, had been appointed by the Saudis to co-ordinate the Tuwaiq International Sculpture Symposium, and arranged for Isabel Langtry to take part.

All the sculptors, including leading artists in France, Germany, the US and China, gathered in Riyadh last month and within 15 days had got to work in the biggest stockyard of sculptures I have ever seen, and produced marvellous works – unbelievably, on a kind of conveyor production line. Fordism of the arts!

As the camera panned across the artists at work on their sculptures it seemed as if they were in the equivalent of an enormously large open air public studio.

Isabel Langtry’s finished work, called Serin

Apparently, the whole thing has been designated 2020 the Year of Arabic Calligraphy by Saudi Arabia’s minister of culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan.

Isabel, just back from Riyadh, told me that a beautiful image of a member of the finch family that can only be found in Saudi Arabia had inspired her to create her piece of sculpture – with the help of two assistants. Called Serin, it will be found a home in Riyadh.

It was ground and drilled out of a piece of marble weighing more than six tons but it was a baby compared to an abstract work produced by a German artist, Rafael Biel. His sculptured piece that weighed more than 30 tons in its original state eventually reaching a height of 15 feet. That this could be ground and shaped in 15 days bore remarkable testament to the help assistants gave to each artist.

As for Biel, it turned out he is a great fan of our glorious sculptor Henry Moore who had inspired the creation of the unique Hampstead School of Art along co-operative lines in the 1950s.

Isabel said there is a lot of misunderstanding about Saudi Arabia – for instance, she wasn’t expected to wear a scarf, much to her surprise, in what is, to her, a modernising country. Fast-moving reforms mean that next year, she said, alcohol will be more available. Life is changing. She had never been to Saudi Arabia before and she talks about it with a sense of high attachment to the country. She found the middle class similar to our middle class, with similar aspirations and feelings.

Did I detect the beginning of a kind of love affair?

Inspired, and forward-thinking, she hopes – though she admits it is a bit of fantasy – that the Hampstead School of Art could one day set up a kind of campus of her school in Riyadh. At present, it seems, that while universities in Riyadh have art departments there are no specialist art schools in the country.

A Hampstead school in Riyadh? Stranger things have happened!

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