In his exhibitions – most recently at the Brooklyn Museum – and especially in his monumental book project The Desert of Pharan, Mater shows a spiritual capital struggling to manage a popularity that draws more than three million visitors in a single week during the hajj pilgrimage season. Around the city, to the edge of the Prophet’s graveyard and far beyond, high rises are going up. Luxury hotels offer suites affording stunning views of the Kaaba for $3,000 a night and more. The ongoing expansion of the grand mosque originally solicited design proposals from 18 of the world’s top architects, including Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava, who as non-Muslims would never have been able to visit the massive project if they had won. They didn’t. And towering over it all is the new Royal Clock Tower, 120 stories tall in the style of London’s Big Ben, housing a Fairmont Hotel crowned by an enormous gilded crescent moon.
‘I am neither a historian nor a cultural critic,’ says Mater, whose Mecca project – obsession, really – began in 2008. ‘But I had read about what was happening to the city, which I had visited when I was young. For Muslims, it is our core, our centre, and I felt I needed to understand it.’ What Mater found was a desert of communities that were rapidly emptying out as the expanding city drew everything within its orbit. ‘I thought of myself as a witness to what the future would be,’ he adds. Mater already had a reputation as an artist with work included in the Cairo Biennial. A year later, a piece appeared in the 53rd Venice Biennial. One of these works, Magnetism (2010), anticipated his total immersion in the problem of Mecca. It was a magnetised cube standing on a white background. Mater surrounded it with iron filings, which were forced into a whirling circle by the repulsive force of the magnet. It supplied a metaphor, if not a preview, for what his photographs and video of the Kaaba would depict.
But first, as he says, ‘I needed to learn how to become a photographer, and I needed a camera that would enable me to capture the full scope of the city as it was developing.’ Mater’s search eventually led him to acquire a Sinar P2 field camera, an unwieldy but precisely machined instrument that produces a high-resolution 8 x 10-inch negative. He bought it from the Binladin Group, the construction company responsible for rebuilding a large part of Mecca. The company used the camera in the 1970s to document the early expansion of the city. ‘I feel emotionally connected to the camera,’ he says. To achieve some of his most spectacular photographs, Mater rigged the heavy camera so it could be taken up in a helicopter. These bird’s-eye views provide a glimpse of the sprawling topography of expansion as well as the sheer volume of humanity inundating the city during the hajj.
Mater subtitles The Desert of Pharan with the line Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, which suggests that the project does not exactly tow a party line. Indeed, the project is explicit in many of its criticisms of development. Mater was a practising physician before he began his art career, and he thinks of this project as a kind of diagnosis. ‘I was a community doctor,’ he says, ‘and my sense of the city is to study it as a body, a whole, to gauge its mental and physical health.’ In his mind, the key to that health is a cultural memory, links to the city’s historic past that are being bulldozed. Hypnotic videos show the demolition of buildings that are themselves only a few decades old, and photographs chart narrow alleyways that almost certainly will not exist in a few years. To make way for the Royal Clock Tower, fifth tallest building in the world, workers razed the Ajyad Fortress, an Ottoman citadel dating from the 18th century. As part of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Mater covered an entire wall with the coloured glass windows he bought from a shop in Mecca that had salvaged them from demolished historic buildings. ‘The problem is that Mecca is a symbolic city,’ says Mater, ‘and its symbolism, which is what draws people, leaves the actual and historic city behind. In the context of Saudi Arabia, where there is a seismic change, I hope my work is an act of forgetting.’ The catalogue for The Desert of Pharan contains extensive interviews with Dr Sami Angawi, the founder of the Hajj Research Centre, and Abdul Rahman Hassanein Makhlouf, founder of the Arab Office of Planning and Architecture. Both offer critical comment, explicit and implicit, about the wholesale erasure of the architectural past in Mecca. Adds Mater, ‘My expectation for architecture is not mainly to build what is new but to rebuild and repair the past. Development should not be forced.’
Likewise potentially controversial is Mater’s commitment to bringing on stage the people who are actually building the city, and the conditions they live in. The exhibition opens with a photograph of a single worker riding the golden crescent as it is hoisted high above the city onto the top of the Clock Tower. His name is Gibrael, a name that recalls the angel Gabriel. A Bangladeshi, for Mater, he symbolises the desire of many workers on the rebuilding, who consider it a special privilege if not a joy to be able to serve God by building the holy city. That joy is tempered by the substandard conditions in which they live and the often-low wages they are paid, sometimes with long delays. The photographs make all of this starkly clear. Mater has interviewed many of the workers, and the videos of those interviews also show a remarkably diverse, and at the same time, close-knit group. The workers come from all over the Muslim world, from Palestine to Southeast Asia, and all of them pictured in the video seem to share the sentiment that the opportunity to work in Mecca is momentous.
One of the customs of pilgrims in Mina, at the outskirts of Mecca, is to circle a large pillar and throw pebbles at it. This ‘stoning the devil’, portrayed in Mater’s video, harks back to the Koran and Abraham’s pilgrimage when he was tempted by the devil and drove him away. At the very least, today the ritual symbolises a renunciation of all forms of temptation, including the accumulation of wealth. Can such a custom be consistent with the vast spending and class distinctions in the new Mecca? Says Mater, ‘One of the core beliefs enacted in and through the hajj is that all are equal in the eyes of God – hence the plain white garments that are worn by all, with no signs of status, background or wealth. Obviously, there are modern innovations that could be perceived as not being in keeping with those principles.’
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys, Brooklyn Museum, New York, until 8 April 2018.
Desert of Pharan Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca by Ahmed Mater is published by Lars Müller Publishers.