THERE AREN’T MANY Saudi guys with dreadlocks. Then again, there aren’t many Saudi guys as vocal, nor as close to the cutting edge of Arab industrial design, as Ahmad Angawi. The son of a prominent architect and a forward-thinking mother who works as an interior designer, Angawi has had a propensity for the arts for as long as he can remember. “I had always been exposed to art and design around the house – you could say I was brainwashed into it,” he explains. “You should have seen my desk in high school. I had the same desk for three years, and every time my pen would break, I would carve calligraphy into the wood and color it in with ink.” Fast-forward a few years, and Angawi was in the heart of Brooklyn, studying at the prestigious Pratt Institute. His mother encouraged a young Angawi to explore the world and ways of thinking outside of Saudi Arabia in order to make a more informed decision about his own culture. “My mother is very meticulous, and a great manager. She taught me about the importance of people’s perception and the need to look beyond my own ways of thinking and explore others’ perceptions.”
But when Angawi came back to Saudi Arabia at age 24, it was with a fresh perspective on his hometown. It was 2006, the dawn of a massive wave of development in Jeddah and the adjacent sacred city of Mecca. After just one year of being back, he left once again, this time in search of the antithesis to his Western education. “I decided to take some time off and live in ancient Arab cities like Istanbul, Fes, Marrakech and Damascus, spending about three months in each. I was in search of the artisans, the crafts, the essence of what cities like Mecca and Jeddah used to be.” To Angawi, even places as steeped in history as Jeddah’s Ballad quarter were falling victim to the ubiquitous gentrification that consumes most Gulf cities. “There is no contradiction in being contemporary and modern and being conservative,” Angawi says. “I believe that they are two sides of the same coin. There is always a continuation in civilizations; you don’t have to discard your past to embrace the future, and this, I think, is what we Saudis are trying to do. In Jeddah, you can see the old city, and the new developments, and there is very much a disconnect between the two.
“Mecca is one of the fastest-changing cities in the world. It has completely changed its physical and social appearance for the sake of development,” he continues. “It’s interesting that Mecca has a strict no non-Muslims policy, yet every business – be it McDonald’s or Starbucks – that is thriving there today is Western. That, to me, is a huge contradiction. Now, I am not against Starbucks or McDonald’s but imagine how powerful it would be if we linked all the Islamic capitals of the world and what they had to offer. We have the best coffee from Morocco, Turkey, Yemen.”
This realization led Angawi to begin designing products that married everyday objects from his own culture with those from the West. “My mantra is ‘Document, analyze and innovate.’ Document the craft – and most of these crafts are dying – analyze it, and come up with ways of making it better. Look into the future, hear your past and talk now,” he urges. Together with local craftsmen, whose dying arts he seeks to highlight (and with whom he shares his revenues), Angawi has designed products such as a sheesha pipe chandelier, a coffee pot that doubles as an Arabic dallah teapot, and a backpack-cum-sajada prayer mat. He has also collaborated with Puma to create a sports jacket inspired by the traditional Saudi mishlah.
Aside from his gizmos and contraptions (innovative as they may be), what makes Angawi truly stand out from – and stir controversy in – the Saudi art scene is his desire to amplify the whispers on the streets of his native Jeddah. He started off the year with a groundbreaking art installation entitled “Street Pulse,” in which he placed microphones throughout the streets of Jeddah, urging people to use them to speak about whatever was on their mind. “I placed the microphones in crowded places such as the corniche, the Ballad and I even embedded one in a Saudi home, and told everyone that is was completely anonymous. A lot of them spoke about women’s rights, some of them spoke about how Jeddah doesn’t have a sense of belonging anymore,” he says. He then played back these conversations from the streets in the Kingdom’s first public contemporary art exhibition, aptly titled “We Need to Talk.” Invigorated by the response that the installation garnered, Angawi plans to conduct the project in other Arab cities, and create a more permanent outlet in his own. “Ultimately I want there to be photo-booth style stations where people can speak – similar to Speakers’ Corner in London,” he says. “But as you can imagine, this is very new to our culture. I am not taking sides; I am just providing a platform for people to speak.”
Angawi is determined to make a social difference through his art. “This is the only time people are speaking up in Saudi Arabia. My father’s generation just lived with things the way they were,” he says. “We have social networking, and that’s great. But I want to hear their voices, it makes it so much more personal.”