Saudi artist Sultan bin Fahad unveiled his second solo exhibit at Riyadh’s Red Palace last spring

Contemporary artists across the world have for several decades now embarked on the crucial duty of examining forgotten aspects of their cultural history, delving into its physical and written archive to construct artworks reframing past events in creative ways. Saudi artist Prince Sultan bin Fahad (b. 1971) fits within this global trend, with a body of work tackling several decades of material culture in his native kingdom to shed light on its heritage. A multidisciplinary artist, Bin Fahad works with painting, sculpture, photography and, most notably, installations accumulating mundane found objects, seeking to provoke a reflection on their function and commenting on Saudi history and identity.

The artist, who is also an adviser to the government on the development of cultural tourism at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, has been exhibiting since 2016, taking part in several group shows, in Saudi Arabia, the United States and across the Middle East. His second solo exhibition, which took place this spring at Riyadh’s Red Palace, reinvested a landmark pregnant with history: the palace, commissioned in 1945 by King Abdulaziz as a residence for his son King Saud, then crown prince, was used as a government building between 1953 and 1987, but had been virtually abandoned since, and reopened to visitors in early 2019.

Bin Fahad filled 14 of the Red Palace’s rooms with artworks reflecting Saudi history and cultural identity, using memorabilia and discarded items found throughout the palace and across the kingdom. Some installations highlighted past politically fraught events, such as an accumulation of gas masks given to Saudi citizens during the first Gulf Warm or one of pamphlets distributed to Saddam Hussein’s soldiers. Elsewhere stood mashrabiya screens from the Masjid Al Haram in Makkah, riddled with bullet holes when the mosque was attacked in 1979. Presented without specific commentary, these installations alert viewers to events whose evocation remains delicate in Saudi Arabia today, and open up conversations about Saudi history.

A re-enacted prayer room included vintage prayer carpets – mass-market items sold to pilgrims near Mecca – overlaid with industrial neon light pieces spelling out prayers in Arabic, yet leaving only the words’ diacritic signs, forming a piece investigating religion in the modern world. But the centrepiece of the exhibition was a video installation in the palace’s dining room, recreating a formal dinner of eras past, down to the menu and tableware. Using figurants, it paid homage to labourers and palace workers whose instrumental work so often goes overlooked.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, 21 Artists and a Biennial #49