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Feb. 22, 2016

Since the early 20th century, Saudi Arabia has experienced extraordinary political, economic and social transformation. Bringing together works by leading Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater (b. 1979), “Symbolic Cities” offers unique perspectives on the effects of such changes on this country. This is the first and only showing of this exhibition in the United States solely dedicated to works by this artist; it will be on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery March 19–Sept. 18.

While Mater works in a variety of media, including painting, installations and performance, “Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater” will focus on his landscape photography as a means of exploring the tension between the traditional world and the realities of contemporary Saudi Arabian life. The exhibition will highlight three journeys through Saudi Arabia, with an eye toward the impact of urbanization—“Empty Land,” “Desert of Pharan” (2011-13) and “Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage” (2015). Beginning with his aerial views of abandoned desert sites and continuing through the reconstruction of Mecca, a series of large-scale photographs and videos are organized as an experiential encounter, a progression from quiet emptiness to the physical and emotional intensity of the changes Mater is witnessing. The exhibition culminates with the installation “Ashab Al-Lal/Fault Mirage: A Thousand Lost Years,” the first chapter in Mater’s latest project examining the growth of Riyadh, the country’s administrative capital and largest city.

“Mater brings the rigor of his training as a physician—as well as unparalleled access—to gather frank observations of his own time and place,” said exhibition curator Carol Huh, the Freer|Sackler’s curator for contemporary art. “The resulting imagery is straightforward and striking, while his newest research-based project presents another fascinating shift in his use of the photographic medium.”

“Symbolic Cities” is the second in a series of exhibitions highlighting artists and works in Freer|Sackler’s growing collection of contemporary photography.

“Symbolic Cities: The Work of Ahmed Mater” is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, in collaboration with Culturunners in partnership with Art Jameel, a Community Jameel initiative.

The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., together comprise the nation’s museum of Asian art. It contains one of the most important collections of Asian art in the world, featuring more than 40,000 objects ranging in time from the Neolithic to the present day, with especially fine groupings of Islamic art, Chinese jades, bronzes and paintings and the art of the ancient Near East. The galleries also contain important masterworks from Japan, ancient Egypt, South and Southeast Asia and Korea, as well as the Freer’s noted collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler. The Freer Gallery of Art, which will be closed during this exhibition, is scheduled to reopen in spring 2017 with modernized technology and infrastructure, refreshed gallery spaces and an enhanced Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Auditorium.