08 Mar 2024 - 18 May 2024

Terhal Gheim / ترحال غيم (The voyage of clouds)

White Cube


White Cube is pleased to present the first solo exhibition in Europe of Saudi Arabian artist Alia Ahmad. ‘Terhal Gheim’ (‘The voyage of clouds’) brings together a group of paintings and watercolours that use the desert plateau of Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh to explore the rich cultural heritage of storytelling and weaving particular to the nomadic Bedouin tribes.

Exploring movement as a framework for understanding place and belonging, the artist narrates the convergence of landscape and memory, negotiating the vital role of change, adaptation and remembrance in the migratory rituals of the Bedouin and the environmental and industrial fluctuations of her home city, Riyadh. Deriving its name from the Arabic word ‘garden’, Ahmad finds potent visual and symbolic expression in the vast compendium of plant life to be found in Riyadh’s arid desert zone – thriving in spite of the inhospitable terrain.

Characterised by bold, Fauvist colour, Ahmad’s paintings fuse aggregated space with restive, gestural abandon, within which more intentional structural traceries emerge. Sinewy, linear markings, created through finer impressions of white pastel, charcoal and ink, trace the vegetal patterning of foliage and flora native to the region, naturally segmenting compositions into gestural and tonal zones, where interactions of light and shade and layered impasto colour playfully combine. Through her controlled, directional brushwork, Ahmad’s paintings assume layered meaning, immersing the viewer within deep enclaves of lush foliage, which in turn resonate with the traditional practices of the Bedouin tribe, who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season when the land is at its most abundant.

Drawing both from real life as well as memory, Ahmad aligns her practice with Bedouin approaches to temporality, rejecting the four-season meteorological paradigm in favour of a more intuitive reliance on daily observations of weather, vegetation and pasture. Adopting this alternative model of time, the artist tethers experiential moments to a localised, more variable temporal structure. In her compositions, seasonal and diurnal cycles appear to merge into one, within which foregrounded areas of verdant growth yield to entropy and decomposition, and light and shadow oscillate between the framed spaces – such as in Noodh (Reflection of light) (2023), whose rippled striations of viridescent green jostle for space within a nocturnal colour palette of mahogany and ink black. Marked by a sense of fluid dissolution, as though envisioned through the haze of desert heat or dense veils of rainfall, Ahmad’s paintings trace shifting moments – fusing scenes at once intuited, abstracted and remembered.

The glyphic lyricism of Ahmad’s work references wider art forms integral to Saudi culture, notably traditional Al Sadu weaving. Crafted by Bedouin women using locally sourced fibres, Al Sadu textiles are woven in a horizontal style, lending an attuned symmetry to the repetitive, colourful patterning that evoke the rich colour tones of the desert landscape and connect threads of identity, locale and history into each design. Primarily executed on small-scale canvases, Ahmad develops her compositional frameworks much like a weaver setting up their skeleton of threads, beginning with gridded patterning and foundational forms, such as the triangle and diamond, from which to build her abstract designs.

Suspended within narrative realms inspired by Bedouin poetry and folklore, Ahmad’s gestural marks convey a distinctly calligraphic quality, evoking the cursive beauty of Arabic script, which is characterised by its leftward slant and diacritic markings that decorate the written word. A nuanced and versatile language, continually evolving in vocabulary, the artist imbues her paintings with a similar openness to interpretation – one rooted in Saudi culture and tradition while remaining flexible to collective and personal memory, the shifting currents of contemporaneity and the immediacy of the felt moment.

As a witness to her changing surroundings, Ahmad’s paintings occupy a notable place within the contemporary milieu. Emulating the heightened colours and flattened perspectives found in digital graphics, a subject the artist studied prior to painting, Ahmad builds new, imaginary landscapes, informed by the modern world while also summoning the movements undertaken by the people and natural landscapes of her homeland – the voyage of the clouds.

Press release from White Cube

Image: Alia Ahmad. Ageeg/ عقيق | Agate. 2023. Oil on canvas 150 x 100 cm. Photography © White Cube (Ollie Hammick). © Alia Ahmad