In his series entitled Illuminations through the use of X-rays and calligraphic text Ahmed Mater explores a contemporary Saudi Arabia and expresses the universal common ties of religion, humanity and self.

Mater (b.1979) is a conceptual artist from Saudi Arabia and at age 35 has achieved international success with work being exhibited (to name a few) in the British Museum, Centre Pompidou, GreenBox Museum Amsterdam, The Jameel Collection, Fotofest Biennial in Houston and the 54th Venice Biennale. Alongside his personal development as an artist Mater works as a fully qualified Medical Doctor and also founded the Al-Meftaha Arts Village in Abha and co-founded Edge of Arabia with British artist Stephen Stapleton.

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Mater’s vision as an artist is to explore the parallel narratives that fascinate us here at #OCCUPYARABART, that of Islamic and Arab aesthetics, culture and concepts within a contemporary society, in this particular instance a contemporary society hugely impacted by consumerism and globalization. Through an array of artworks and series Mater has explored religion, socio-politics, globalization, human connections, local collective memory and the history of Saudi Arabia in particular addressing the social and economic transformation of the Arab region.

Mater employs mixed media to execute his concepts, combining video, image and photography, as well as painting and calligraphy; he works regularly with installation and performance as part of his artistic expression. Works like Magnetism, an interpretation of the Kaaba, has become an iconic image synonymous with the artist, exhibited in places such as the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum 2012.

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Illuminations, a powerful series that evokes universal concepts of life, death, faith and human connection begins with a series entitled Prognosis. Mater took inspiration from his academic background taking medical notes and text to collage with images of mosques, the Kaaba and X-ray images. This work was a starting point in evoking questions around the idea of humanity and what forms this. Does it begin with the body, the medical science? and how then does is stretch beyond. Mater’s work explores the uncertain complex identity of mankind in an ever changing contemporary world.

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This work inspired the Illuminations series, where Mater turned to focus more on the skeletal X-ray motif, taking these ghostly images and positioning them within a religious framework. Arabs have diverse ancestral roots and although not all Arabs are Muslim the majority follow the Islamic faith where calligraphy and the artistic appearance of the written Arabic word are deeply bound with religious meaning as it was the form of communicating the Quran, the holy book of Islam. This resulted in the written word being of great importance as explained by Dimand, “In the fifteenth century, under the rule of the Timurids, the arts of the book reached their height. Calligraphy attained the importance of a great art.” Maintaining an awareness of this heightened reverence of the written word in Arab history is important when considering contemporary works by Arab artists. We propose that the historical Islamic context is influential on the inclusion of text in contemporary Arab art whether it is as an expression of a religious identity or in an attempt to free the text from its religious framework.

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Mater found inspiration from The Quranic layout, the arts, and the Illuminated headings. This becomes the holding frame for the x-rays. The contrast is visually shocking, juxtaposed, both ideas are individually recognisable but together from a new and powerful relationship. Throughout this series, each painting holds the visual nature of geometry, balance, Islamic art, decorated panels and pause sections of Quran. In place of where the text is normally found Mater inlays his X-ray.

In combining modern medical X-rays of torsos facing each other in an implied ‘conversation’ Mater expresses the encouraged ideals of human connection within religion; of intimacy, light, honesty and transparency. The X-rays are framed by and visually juxtaposed with holy scripts and religious symbols printed on traditionally treated paper. Mater prepares his paper with coffee, tea and pomegranate, methods employed in Quranic calligraphy in order to create a luminous and vivid quality, allowing Mater to literally expand on the concept of light between people. Mater aims to project the giving of light and the universal ideas of religions all over world embracing and putting forward the concept of giving light, closing off darkness for positivity and humanity, a religious idea that reaches mankind through many ways.


The written word is used in this piece decoratively in the formulaic layout of Quranic illuminated headings and also in its religious meaning forming part of the narrative. Illumination XV & XVI includes the Arabic word ‘waqf’, which is a form of religious charity often mentioned in the Quran. The word refers to an ongoing donation into the community, strengthening the idea of shared religious principles between people. In combining text and imagery Mater creates a powerful contemporary approach to exploring the deeply rooted religious principles that are intrinsic to his own personal identity as a Muslim.

The expectation of a religious book holds small personal intimate reading traditional experience, however in this instance the paintings are over a metre high, huge, impactful in size in a gallery space, bold statement, envelop the viewer, strong, new intimate relationship between viewer and traditional. The size adds to a dramatic experience and becomes a mirror of themselves.

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As the series develops the works vary in a subtle matter, the position of the bodies, the excerpts and choice words from Quranic text. Illumination V includes excerpts from Sura 33 [‘they would wish they were in the deserts and wandering among the Beduin  and] seeking news about you from a safe distance and if they were in your midst, they would fight but a little’.] Illumination (no number) has a verse from Sura 104 (al-Nas) [‘seeking refuge from ‘the one who whispers into the hearts of mankind’.]

In Talisman X-Ray III, the borders take a different course, Mater turns to more mystical symbols and signs in Islamic history. Traditional and powerful signs of protection in the form amulets form an ancient language, where combinations of letters and numbers are believed to hold magical and protective powers within their symbolic meaning.

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The powerful works, layered with meaning touch on tradition but move beyond with purpose in a significant and new way. The expressions are a realisation of the cultural complexity that captures so much of the region. Ahmed Mater’s work continues to develop and encounter many concepts in relation to a contemporary Arab society, #OCCUPYARABART will bring you further works by this inspiring artist.


One comment

  1. Mohammed G
    April 19, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    A beautifully written piece! The narration gives a sense of a real and intimate guided tour. The page layout is visually pleasing allowing onlookers to first take in information, then digest it as they view the art work. A powerful exhibit that occupies the mind, stimulates self-reflection and initiates conversation.

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