A glimpse of Jeddah through the lens of a Frenchwoman

For the past two years, the French Consulate General in Jeddah has taken it upon itself to establish a unique cultural exchange initiative with the aim to foster a better understanding between the two diverse nations. The consulate invited artists and photographers from both countries to visit the other’s homeland and produce artwork related to their experiences.
The result so far has been three hardcover art books, and three newly found artistic ambassadors, beginning with nomadic French painter Ronan Olier. Saudi painter Mohamed Haider was also given an opportunity to visit the French countryside and live with the locals. Together, with French photographer Anne de Henning, the initiative has precipitated a cultural exchange through the medium of art.

Arab News chatted with Anne de Henning about her two-week stay in Saudi Arabia and the book that documented her artistic itinerary through Jeddah. Having been all over the Middle East, de Henning always wanted to photograph Saudi Arabia. “I was very honored to be invited to an artist residence by Alain Marquer, the cultural attaché at the French Consulate General in the frame of cultural exchange,” explained de Henning, “I am also very grateful to the mayors of Jeddah and Balad people who allowed me to photograph and document freely both the modern and old city.”

She confesses that she doesn’t feel she has a “mission” to fulfill with her art, but rather enjoys sharing her experiences of other cultures and capturing the fast changing world through still images. “From my early youth, I felt the urge to find out about different ways of life,” explained de Henning. “I lived in the jungle with the Dayak tribe in Borneo, I covered the war in Vietnam, I walked on the Himalayas in Nepal and more recently traveled for the past six years throughout the Arabian Peninsula.”

Equipped with her Nikon 700, a short zoom lens, and a few words of Arabic — “Momken assawar?” (May I take your picture?), de Henning’s work reveals an intimate portrayal of Jeddah seen for the first time through her creative lens. Yet she humbly admits that the book doesn’t pretend to be a complete portrait of city.
“It is only a glimpse of the city caught through the eye of a Frenchwoman photographer seduced by the charm of the city,” said de Henning.

“Since very little is known of Jeddah outside Saudi Arabia, the book is a means to share with others a personal vision of the city and to show Saudis my appreciation of the city and its people.”

A winner of the prestigious Aga Khan Award in 2007, de Henning’s work tends to document the impact of architecture on various societies. “More generally, I often wonder at the speed at which the people of the Arabian Peninsula have transformed or developed an urban environment of sky rises and highways and their ability to adapt within a couple of generations to a modern globalized environment,” she stated.

“The theme of the work I’ve done in the Arabian Peninsula has steadily focused on the people and the transformation of their urban environment in contrast with their natural environment of desert, mountains and sea — except in Yemen, where traditional architecture still prevails.”
Shooting mostly at wide angle at close range, de Henning had initially planned to have her images in black and white, but soon realized that the colorless images wouldn’t do the vibrant port city fair justice. “I realized how much color had been introduced in an otherwise stark natural environment, brightly painted facades, golden glow of glass towers, red zinc palm trees, bright orange and purple lamp posts, etcetera,” she stated. “All this needed to be captured in color.”
While de Henning avoids making assumptions, she read extensively about the Saudi Arabia prior to her visit. “I store the information and keep my mind open,” she said. “I prefer to let myself be surprised and enjoy firsthand the pleasure of meeting people and the vivid physical experience of discovering the sights, smells and sounds specific to the place.”

What attracted her specifically to Jeddah was its unique geography and history as well as its diverse population of a blend of communities. “If I had any idea of what to expect, it was precisely this diversity,” she added, “and I was not disappointed.”
As an artist, she was very surprised to see Jeddah’s outdoor sculpture garden — the world’s largest, in fact. She was even more surprised to see that it hosted some of the Western world’s most prominent artists such as Henry Moore, Calder, and César. De Henning was also able to preview the local art scene. “The art scene in Jeddah is very lively I have met a number of talented Saudi artists, men and women, seen and appreciated their work, and visited several galleries representing both local and foreign contemporary artists,” she revealed. “There was a show at Gallery Athr featuring very daring works by young Saudi artists, some critical of the handling of the Jeddah floods by the local authorities. I was impressed.

The main souvenir de Henning has taken back from Jeddah is the admiration for its beautiful historic architecture. “The people of Jeddah should be made aware of their cultural heritage and treat Balad as a national treasure.” Having visited other countries of the Arabian Peninsula, de Henning noticed many, except for Yemen, have very few traditional houses left standing.
“I was very pleasantly surprised by the extent of Balad and its amount of beautiful latticed houses and mansions,” she said. “However, some are in very poor condition and the program for the preservation of Balad should be implemented as quickly as possible.”

The invitation provided de Henning with the opportunity to meet diverse people working in a variety of fields, and allowed her while get to know the city much faster than if had been on my own. “I was able to take in the atmosphere, and focus completely on my work,” she added. “The cultural services of the French Consulate General would be very happy if in turn a Saudi photographer came to Paris, where I would be happy to guide her/him through the city and its art scene.”

De Henning, who is yet to see other Saudi cities, is determined for further exploration. “I would certainly love to come back and get to know and work in other parts of the country.”

Article by Marriam M Mossalli – Arab news



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