Some 1.5 month ago, I visited Jeddah’s Old Town, also known by the Arabic term Al-Balad, when my family was visiting me here. Not having been there for quite some time (we usually only go there during the month of Ramadan once or twice), my husband and I were amazed how much the area had been improved: it was cleaner, car-free, and many buildings had been renovated or were under restoration.
The efforts to revive the Old Town are part of an attempt to have Jeddah’s old city center included in the UNESCO list of heritage sites. The last time the committee came together it rejected Jeddah’s bid, mainly due to the state of negligence the area is in. The committee will come together this year in June in neighboring country Qatar, and the Saudi authorities are determined to succeed in including Jeddah this time around.
It is in this context that a famous Saudi photographer, Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known under his artistic name Emy Kat, has made a series of photos that are currently on display here at Athr Gallery. I was lucky enough to meet him and write an article about it, which came out in the Saudi Gazette on Saturday, April 19.
Here is the full article I wrote:
Emy Kat’s cry to save Jeddah’s heritage
Another attempt has been made to show the public the importance of preserving their city’s heritage. Photographer Mohamed Al-Khatib, better known as Emy Kat, has documented historical buildings and palaces of Jeddah’s Al-Balad (or Old Town) in a solo exhibition currently on display at Athr Gallery.
Named “The Everlasting Now,” the exhibition tries to capture the beauty of a heritage that is vanishing due to neglect. As such, it serves two goals: To preserve the heritage, if only through photographs; and to raise awareness about the importance to preserve what is left. The images on display do not try to hide the dilapidated state of some of the buildings. The crumbling walls are clearly visible, as are the traces of rats and worms that occupied the buildings after the owners abandoned it.
However, to simply say that Kat is criticizing the authorities’ failure to preserve the Hejazi heritage does not do justice to the exhibition. According to the artist himself, he did not want to bring the neglect forward more than the beauty. The two had to be equal, and this was the toughest part of the project, he admits. Rather than criticizing or imposing his own opinion, he intends to provoke questions with his work, like “What happened to these historical buildings?”, “Why is no one preserving them?” and “Why do so few people know about this heritage and the importance to preserve it?” The most important question, however, for Kat is “What can be done to preserve it?”
And while this question cannot easily be answered, Kat hopes that by creating awareness people will at least pressurize the authorities to exert more effort to preserve their heritage.
Kat is in no case the first to notice the neglect. In June 2011, UNESCO turned down Jeddah’s request for Al-Balad to become included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly due to the district’s negligence. “It was a blow, but at the same time, we still have hope. UNESCO meets every three years,” is Kat’s reaction.
Since the rejection, much has happened. The Kingdom invested SR50 million into the area’s renovation and promoted domestic tourism heavily. The 10-day heritage festival held in January this year was part of the efforts to acknowledge the importance of Al-Balad and Hejazi culture.
This year, the city has submitted its request for nomination again. Whether it can convince the UNESCO World Heritage Committee this time remains to be seen in June, when the committee’s next meeting is scheduled in Qatar.
Kat’s affinity for Jeddah’s Old Town started at a young age, when he used to cycle down to Al-Balad without permission from his parents. “For me, it was a huge adventure,” he says, and to see it dying in this manner created anguish and frustration in him.
His love for photography began early in life as well, when his father gave him his first camera at the age of 12. But Kat was not destined to become a professional photographer until he moved to the United States at the age of 29 following his father’s death. Prior to that, he was a successful industrial consultant who appeared to have it all. But soon he realized that money did not make him happy and that, after his father had passed away, nothing tied him to Jeddah anymore. On the fields of Iowa, he attempted to find himself, soon realizing he wanted to pursue a career in photography. He became a fashion photographer and earned several awards. His work got published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Elle Décor, and Kat lived in New York and Paris. To be closer to his mother when she fell ill, Kat moved to Dubai in 2000, where he took up a job in advertorial photography in order to sustain himself at a time Dubai did not yet have a developed fashion industry.
The wish to capture the dying heritage city of his childhood was there ever since he came back to Jeddah after 17 years and saw what was happening to the Old Town. In 2006, the photographer was asked by a senior heritage curator — Kat laughs when remembering the title — to take photos for a book about the old town. Seeing the ignorant and irresponsible attempts at restoration, Kat had to politely turn down the offer. “You can’t just smother paint and cement onto coral and [call it] renovation. It won’t marry; it will fall off,” he illustrates. “This needs to be brushed.” The idea to perpetuate the historical district, however, remained.
Meeting Hamza Serafi, co-founder of Athr Gallery, enabled Kat to turn his dream into reality. The artist lived in Al-Balad for three months, while the whole project of research, execution and developing his photographs covered some one and a half year. “I wanted to tell the story [of the Old Town], but I wanted to say it in a contemporary and personal way,” relates Kat, who decided to resurrect a home through his photographs of various homes. The result encompasses three types of approaches and techniques: There are the photos of spaces – an entrance and a Majlis (sitting place); the macro photos to give the intricacies and the intimacies of the details of the story; and the summarizing, digital collages, for which Kat invented the title “Stripe Collage.”
The current exhibition, Kat adds, is only the first part of his work. Eager to leave a lasting impact on the audience, the artist and Athr Gallery will organize a second edition of this project, although the when and how have yet to materialize. “Because it’s work in progress. It’s a documentary project, so we’re putting it together, and we’re trying to see what is the best way to communicate awareness on a long run.”
It is hard not to get the impression that everything Kat touches becomes gold. A successful industrial consultant turned fashion photographer turned advertorial photographer turned artist, Kat is a staunch believer in the adage “impossible is nothing.” But thinking that everything in Kat’s life is handed over to him on a silver platter is an illusion. Besides his enormous talents, it is perhaps his determination and perseverance that helps him obtain what he aspires, even if he has to wait for it, as happened when he moved back to the Gulf.
“In Dubai, there was no art, and I wanted to jump to art,” Kat says. Going back to Paris was no option, as he had let his studio. He was stuck in Dubai, so to speak. To sustain himself, Kat worked as an advertisement photographer from 2000, until in 2008 he got the opportunity to become an artist, which he grabbed with both hands.
Kat is an energetic man and full of ideas. It is clear he loves what he does, and he passionately talks about the techniques he used and the challenges he faced, such as when he thought he had shot the perfect image only to find out back in Paris — where he developed his analogue photos — that the picture, although technically impeccable, was soulless. In his Stripe Collages, he used a striking technique of summarizing a space into one two-dimensional image. His works are a combination of colorful details and monotonous gray. Kat has seamlessly achieved his aim to capture the beauty as well as the decline of the Hejazi heritage — a decline that is the result not only of ignorance but also unwillingness to preserve and invest in the city’s true history.
Only two weeks ago, the roof of one of the buildings caught fire. While firemen attempted to extinguish the flames, the roof collapsed, running down the entire structure. Captured on the Stripe Collage “Indoors,” the building is just one example of what is happening to the city’s heritage, but it gives “The Everlasting Now” an additional sense of urgency that time is running out.
“The Everlasting Now” can be seen daily at Athr Gallery until April 30 on the 5th floor of the Business Center, Wing B, at Serafi Mega Mall on Tahlia Street in Jeddah.