Ahmed Mater holds a steady wheel as the car snakes up the precarious roads into the Aseer mountains. ‘I was born in Tabuk in the North-West of Saudi,’ says Mater, ‘because my father was in the military and we lived on a base right on the border. But we came here to Aseer not long after I was born.’ A light rain patters onto the windshield. ‘My village is in these mountains and I feel really in contact with these people and the rural life of this place.’
Mater’s artistic output has some key hooks; his day-job as a doctor (which he insists he’ll never quit, despite rapidly growing acclaim as an artist) means that x-rays and use of the body often figure. There’s also an engagement with modern Saudi Arabia – one of his most simple, yet visually arresting pieces is a black magnet on a white plinth, with a light shower of black iron filings radiating out in perfect circles around the magnet; a reference to the Ka’aba in the centre of Mecca.
But there is a performance piece from early in Mater’s career that really resonates with the rural area he calls home. In 2007, he took a cow from the village, sponged watery yellow colouring onto it sides and sent the cow off into the centre of Abha.
The piece was referencing a story from the Qu’ran, in which a tribe – under the leadership of Musa – are told by God to sacrifice a cow to discover the identity of a murderer in their community. The tribe, prone to indecision, begin to ask – how will we know which cow, what will it look like? To which God replies, that it will be a shiny, yellow and rather attractive looking cow. The moral of the story being, don’t ask so many questions of God.
The citizens of Abha, upon seeing this bewildered yellow bovine running through town, naturally made the connection with the Qu’ranic story, Mater explains. ‘I couldn’t gauge all the reactions, but the people here know the story well and really relate to the narratives of Qu’ran, and take everything as a guideline to life.’
Mater followed up The Yellow Cow performance piece with an installation work in a small supermarket in Abha. He started selling cheese, labneh and milk under the brand name of Yellow Cow, which he designed himself. ‘When I put out those products,’ Mater continues, ‘that for me was really trying to communicate a sense of what will happen in the future here.’
In his work as a doctor, Mater is frequently called on to make house visits to members of the community in some of the most remote parts of Aseer. These meetings allow him to penetrate to the heart of this deeply traditional region: a part of Saudi where men tie lavender into their hair beneath their headscarves to smell good, and where women traditionally worked alongside men. ‘This place is changing as people are coming in from outside and talking to these people. It’s becoming extreme here. 35 years ago, the women didn’t cover their faces, they were in life and had responsibility.’
There are new ideas copying something from outside. Change is inevitable but Abha is still native
‘It has been a disaster this change, I feel, but you can still find that older generation. These people love beauty, and in the older houses you see these incredible geometric designs painted onto the walls. There’s clear symbolism in these designs, with trees and other symbols incorporated that describe about their previous generations.’
Mater tells us that these designs are intricate, complicated narratives the women of the tribes interpret and use to tell stories. Every house has its own geometric design. ‘These people live by a very clear code,’ says Mater. ‘And that has been a huge inspiration for me. If you do this, then you have to respect that; you have to be a good worker, you have to have respect for people and animals. It’s a very cultured society, for instance they say only the empty wheat grows the highest. That means don’t have an ego, don’t think you’re higher than other people – otherwise you become empty, a vacuum.’
‘This code comes from the people, and from experiences of a life of working hard. It’s not just an emergent set of ideas, it’s based on many generations and chronological changes.’
This code, and its disappearance, is what worries Mater. ‘There are new ideas here that are not coming from within, and are copying something from outside. Change is inevitable but Abha – I can say this – is still native.’