Saudi artist Mohannad Shono’s Argentina Show explores meaning and storytelling
DUBAI: A large planet-like circular shape, speckled with what appears to be craters and a few black dots, is constantly changing in front of the beholder’s eyes.
This is “The Fifth Sun”, a textile wall projection with sound created in 2017 by the Saudi artist Mohannad Shono. According to the artist, it examines self-fulfilling prophecies – and “self-inflicted wounds” – in relation to destruction and rebirth. It is one of the works that Shono – one of Saudi Arabia’s most promising contemporary artists – is showing at BIENALSUR (the International Biennial for Contemporary Art of the South) in Buenos Aires through the Saudi Ministry of Culture.
The career of the Riyadh-born artist is as inspiring as it is unconventional. As a child he began to create his own comics – a sideline that he kept up while studying architecture in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. Eventually he decided to devote himself entirely to his art and published one of the first comics in Saudi Arabia through a small independent publisher.
In 2004 he left the Kingdom to pursue an advertising career in Dubai and Sydney, but continued to work on his art on the side. When he returned to Riyadh in 2015, he found that the country had changed a lot and began participating in underground art exhibitions, establishing himself as a distinguished name in the local Saudi art movement.
Since then his work has been exhibited at home and abroad (including in South Korea and Germany) and he has taken part in artist residencies in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
At the center of Shono’s conceptual art, which he does from a variety of media including paper, film, and installation work, is the study of human understanding. His works – although they do not represent the human form or the outside world – are full of suggestions and emotions. According to Shono, they arise from “an imagined state of being, without a specific time and place,” which ultimately frees him from his own feeling of displacement, which comes from his upbringing as a Syrian in Saudi Arabia.
Shono is exhibiting five more works at BIENALSUR: “The Silent Press” (2019), “The Name of All Things” (2019), “The Reading Ring” (2019), “Our Inheritance of Meaning” (2019) and a new ink-on-paper work called “Stolen Words”.
Most of them were also shown in the artist’s solo exhibition “The Silence is Still Talking” at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah.
“This work explored our relationship with the nature of words and their meaning,” says Shono. “They are taking us on a journey of the hard work that is required to reform the word. We start by breaking down the “hardened word,” by which I mean the things that we are trying to break apart and re-understand – or break apart until they lose their meaning – to create new words with new meanings ) and maybe open to find solutions that are urgently needed. ”
“The Names of All Things” is a good example of what Shono is trying to achieve. It’s an installation made up of dust made up of words written in charcoal that have been ground up. The dust lies on a vibrating table so that it is shaken across the canvas, its forms are constantly being reshaped into “limitless arrangements”.
“The traces left in this process can give rise to new meanings for these old words,” said Shono. “These are symbols that potentially contain and embody new words and new meanings. They are still illegible, but are currently being read. “
Much of Shono’s work explores the ways in which storytelling affects contemporary society. “People are hardwired to attract constructed narratives,” he says. “We love to consume narratives in all of their different media – books, shows, films, etc. This belief in narratives also helps us to come together as tribes: we can gather around a narrative and that helps us to follow certain rules ( set in) a story to organize. It gives us the power to organize into larger groups gathered around a series of narratives and beliefs. Millions upon millions of people can therefore coordinate and be on the same page because of this generally shared belief in a particular narrative – a narrative that everyone in this group has accepted as truth. “
The centerpiece of “The Silence is Still Talking” was “The Silent Press” – a large-format installation consisting of three attached pigment-on-paper rolls that resemble an old printing press. The work is indicative of Shono’s exploration of the meaning of the written word. “This is a printing press that is inactive; it is therefore noiseless and does not move, ”he says. “The pigments are moved by sound so that you can see their resulting movement on the paper, but without hearing the sound that made them appear that way. I took intentionality out of my hands in order to discover a new language and meaning. ”
Instead of recognizable words, the scrolls are covered with undefined black shapes that reveal a language of their own.
“I’m interested in the power of fluid interpretations and readings,” Shono told Arab News. “Inflexible meanings compared to words that have an open, more fluid interpretation.”
Shono’s personal relationship with the written word is complicated. The artist is dyslexic and does not feel comfortable writing publicly in English or Arabic, but these works allow him to “form my own language”. The ever-changing arrangements of this language naturally create ever-changing meanings for their “words”.
Shono has reworked some of his pieces for BIENALSUR in light of his own and others’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It often takes a few manifestations of work to see the connection between things. They all address our relationship, personally and collectively, with change, ”he says. “I have the feeling that everything connects and resonates at the same time. It’s all part of this ongoing understanding of myself and my work and why I’m doing what I’m doing.
“And change continues,” he continues. “My work is about how we can accept and value change and accept a more fluid reading – instead of a rigid interpretation of the text.”