200 Eastern Parkway at Washington St.
Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia Gallery of Contemporary Art, fourth floor
Through June 17, $10-$16
While the crowds line up to see the time-ticketed “David Bowie is” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, a wide-ranging tribute to the late, beloved Thin White Duke, there’s a much quieter, beautifully elegiac show on the fourth floor of the institution. Visitors will find it well worthwhile to take the stairs and “turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes” in one of the holiest sites in the world documented in “Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys.” The show consists of spectacular large-scale photographs, video, and sculpture by Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, who was born, raised, and still lives and works in his native country. Splendidly curated by Catherine J. Morris based on Mater’s 2016 book, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, the exhibit focuses on Mecca as a living city that is much more than a destination for pilgrims on the annual hajj. “I was compelled to document the rapidly disintegrating and soon-to-be-lost narratives of the place and its people,” Mater, a former community doctor, writes, noting how modern technological advancement and a more consumerist culture are eradicating the older infrastructure. “What is not yet clear is the impact this will have on the emotional and psychological well-being of the inhabitants of the city,” he adds. Mater has contributed personal and informational wall text and labels to accompany the stunning works.
In the dye-sublimation print “Jibreel (Gabriel),” a construction worker is tethered to a minaret being lifted high in the air to take its position atop the Grand Mosque amid a pollution-ridden sky. In the C-print “Walkway to Mina,” tens of thousands of pilgrims are heading to Mecca. “Ka’aba” depicts the mass of humanity in and around the cube at the center of the holy site, while the calm “Gas Station in Leadlight” reveals a small gas station — where Mater refuels when he travels to Mecca — glowing at night in an empty area. Several photographs were taken in local settlements that have since been demolished. “Because it is rarely perceived as a living city, the idea of Mecca remains unencumbered by the reality of its own inhabitants and historical development,” Mater, who also visited with Burmese Muslims from the Rohingya community, opines. “The symbolic city is replacing the real city.”
The two-channel video Road to Mecca II shows the madness and mayhem as pilgrims arrive for the hajj, where non-Muslims are not allowed, while the videos King Kong and Disarm Surveil take viewers around the Mecca Royal Clock Tower, the third tallest building in the world. In Leaves Fall in All Seasons, footage taken by workers follows Jibreel astride the golden crescent being installed on the tower. A giant sculpture of the Qur’an made by Saudi artist Dia Aziz Dia can be seen in the C-print “On the Haramain Highway.” A collection of painted window frames hung on the wall is all that is left of many small homes that were torn down in the supposed name of progress. “Room with a View” was taken in an upscale hotel room, going for as much as $3,000 a night, offering a remarkable view of Ka’aba. “The division that luxury hotels impose is anathema within the context of the dignified, fundamental leveling principles that are the very basis of the hajj,” Mater states. “The core tenets of Islam, eloquently articulated by the rituals of the hajj and protected since the days of the Prophet, were never meant to compete with superluxurious hotels or brand names.” In “Mecca Journeys,” Mater makes it clear that what is happening goes beyond mere gentrification, consumerism, and corporate greed; it’s a knife in the back of the city’s history and culture. The exhibit serves as a striking counterpoint to “David Bowie is,” each revolving around different types of worship over something that is already lost, or well on its way, although Bowie’s work will of course stand the test of time.