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How Ahmed Mater Reveals the Humanity of Mecca

According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed observed that when one part of the body is wounded, the whole body feels distress. This idea is a metaphor: it enjoins all Muslims to look out for one another’s well-being. But for the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, the comparison applies equally to another complex organism: Mecca, the holy city.

“It’s a beautiful way to think about the city,” says Mater, who has mixed documentary and conceptual methods to think about Mecca for the past decade. Mecca Journeys, an illuminating exhibition of his video, sculpture, and large-format photography at the Brooklyn Museum, has been extended to June. Mater, 38, is a prominent figures in a Saudi art scene that is gaining visibility. Raised in Abha, near the Yemen border, he lives in Jeddah, the busy port and commercial hub that serves as a gateway to Mecca. “Being Saudi, from a Muslim family, Mecca was always the center of our life,” Mater says. But he is also trained as a physician, with a specialty in community health, and the principles of that discipline inform his art. “The way my eye works is to look to the city as a body.”

“Ka’aba” (2015)

Mecca is easy to get wrong—or to see through a narrow lens. For Muslims it is a spiritual destination, a place they are expected, if able, to visit at least once in their life on the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, which occurs in the last month of the Islamic year. Between Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage, the Umrah, which one can make at any time, some 10 million foreign visitors come to Mecca each year. Religious travel drives the local economy, and Saudi authorities encourage its expansion, aiming for 30 million visitors in 2030.

For non-Muslims, forbidden from entering the city, Mecca has long been mysterious, invested with all manner of Orientalizing fears and fantasies. And when Mecca makes the world news, it is usually due to a tragic event—the seizure by extremists of the Grand Mosque in 1979, for instance, or the stampede during Hajj in September 2015 in Mina, on the city’s outskirts, which according to media estimates killed some 2,400 people.

Today, digital culture has made Mecca easier to experience vicariously, thanks to the pilgrims’ Facebook posts and Instagram stories. But the Mecca that Mater documents is different. His concern is with the city, its year-round population of close to two million, its old and new neighborhoods, and the endless building frenzy that is constantly pressuring its environment and altering its shape. Mater’s Mecca is an immense sprawl: In images and video that he makes from above, aboard a police helicopter on patrol, the city pushes up hillsides and into valleys, the landscape and structures coalescing in a field of ochres and browns. These views recalls cities with similar topographies—Mexico City, or Caracas—and make obvious the challenges of infrastructure and ecology.

“Neighborhood—Stairway” (2015); “Stand in the Pathway and See” (2012)

Mater’s Mecca is also a vast construction site. There are fields of cranes, areas marked for demolition, decrepit old quarters overshadowed by soaring new edifices. The pressure to expand Mecca’s visitor capacity means the past is under constant threat, as everything from working-class neighborhoods to sites with historical and religious meaning falls prey to real estate development. Looking down on the Kaaba, the black cube that pilgrims clad in simple whites circumambulate in an ancient act of devotion, is the huge, unlovely Abraj al-Bait, a complex of skyscrapers housing luxury apartments, malls, and an enormous hotel.

Atop the central building’s massive clock tower, 120 floors high, is a huge crescent mounted on a pillar base. In the heart-stopping highlight of Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a video that Mater made out of footage that construction workers filmed for him, we find ourselves on girders high up as the crescent is about to be mounted. A worker harnesses himself to the piece; the crane hoists him up, a tiny figure clinging to a giant sculpture as it dangles in the dusty haze.

Still from “Leaves Fall in All Seasons” (2013)

It is an extraordinary moment; but just as affecting are the passages of workers on the ground, filming each other, conducting mock interviews laced with friendly jibes. These men are immigrants, from around the Arab world, from North Africa, from India, from Indonesia. Mater has spent time with them, visiting their work sites, learning their lives. He pays special attention as well to Mecca’s large Rohingya community, whose presence predates the current acute stage of the repressive conflict in Myanmar. One photograph is of a street made of steps up a high escarpment in the Rohingya part of town. There are vegetable stalls at the base in the foreground; going up, wires, air conditioning units, wall murals, litter, and assorted bric-a-brac fill the vertical streetscape. This Mecca is, simply, another city of the global South.

To enter the exhibition, the visitor walks around two large standing screens with video projections that give a sense, respectively, of the drive towards Mecca from Jeddah, and of walking among the crowds at night in the holy city. The road video is particularly rich: Along the highway are industrial areas, drab outskirt zones, advertising billboards, barren desert terrain, and finally the exit for non-Muslims and other non-Mecca traffic, the spiritual exclusivity of the place marked, in Arabic and English, in the banal visual vocabulary of highway signage.

“Workers Camp” (2015)

Mater’s take on Mecca is, in some ways, a dispassionate one. Pragmatic and attentive to material conditions and processes, he documents buildings and their makers, commerce from street stalls to shopping malls, the simplicity of workers’ and middle-class homes and the parvenu interiors of fancy hotels. He is no fan of the construction spree, which has transformed the city’s aspect and leveled many of its landmarks in his lifetime. His distaste aims less at the sometimes vulgar esthetics that at the bigger problems: Neglect of context, erasure of history. “I expect much better architecture in this location,” he says. “It should be more related to the land, and the social fabric of the people.”

A large and beautiful book, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, offers an expansive set of Mater’s photographs of Mecca; its subtitle denotes his concern with acknowledging the labor and process of transformation while maintaining a record beyond the bulldozers’ reach. In some ways a preservationist, Mater collects objects in Mecca and installs them as sculptures, including one, in the Brooklyn Museum show, made of discarded old window frames painted in lively colors.

“Walkway to Mina” (2012)

But this is not a pessimistic project. Rather, Mater is taking stock of the city, with a lyrical approach to photography and videography, attentive to both the built environment and its occupants, that adds a subtle political force to the work of documentation, and quietly suggests some possibilities. “Mecca has a lot of things gone, but a lot can be saved,” Mater says. The authorities have been responsive, he says. “The mayor of Mecca wants to do a lot of education about preserving Mecca so it can be an environmental and truly Islamic city.”

Mater has some influence: He is the first director of the Misk Art Institute, a new initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s omnipresent crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to develop arts hubs in the country and run exhibitions abroad. “There is a big energy of change,” Mater says, citing social reforms, such as women being finally allowed to drive, and the pressure of generational change. Mecca may be an inherently conservative site, with worship and pilgrimage inexorably woven into its meaning. But Mater reveals it—perhaps even to its residents—as something dynamic, contemporary, universal; a place materially and culturally connected to every other place. “I’m talking about Mecca as a city in the world,” he says. “This project for me is like a voice.”

Ahmed Mater: “Mecca Journeys
Brooklyn Museum
brooklynmuseum.com
Through June 17

“Public Transit” (2015).
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The Unbelievers Is a Study in the Frustrating Insufferableness of People You Probably Agree With

Such is the Bible-based atmosphere of hostility toward legitimate scientific authority these days that Scientific American recently disabled reader comments on its online articles. In this age of disenlightenment, mass media is too willing to give scientific inquiry and irrational voodoo sorcery equal weight.

But when, at the outset of The Unbelievers, physicist Lawrence Krauss expresses anthropological condescension about some Muslim kids outside bowing toward Mecca, viewers who agree with his opinions on religion in the public space might wish he would just shut his piehole.

A study in the frustrating insufferableness of people you probably agree with, the film follows Krauss and venerable biologist Richard Dawkins on their joint books-and-smugness tour, during which they speak, often shrilly, about the intrusion of religion into politics and science.

Director Gus Holwerda includes a lot of second-unit footage of the pair walking through various cities, airport terminals, and wet streets against a sonic backdrop of overplayed tracks from ’90s alt-pop chosen seemingly at random by somebody’s dad.

Sure, R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush” lends a degree of urgency to shots of Christian protestors the director never places into a narrative context, but the mood is diminished by the uneventful tour and Krauss’s clownish Boomer ensemble of Converse high-tops with Men’s Wearhouse suits.

All of which is a shame, because the two men are capable of speaking beautifully, and even poetically, about the majesty of the universe, the chain of life, and the function of science in the examination of reality. When instead they doggedly pursue a meta-conversation about how right they are, they could not lend atheism a more uncharismatic face.

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Weekend Nachos

The Chicago-based speed demons in the grindcore metal group Weekend Nachos were custom-made to play a venue like LES punk Mecca ABC No Rio. Even though they once drafted Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump to lend vocals to their 2011 track “Jock Powerviolence,” they’ve by and large stuck to old-school angry metal diatribes about hating everything that belie the tastiness of their band name. Their new album, Still, even has a song where they sing about how much they hate lyric sheets. With Midwestern hardcore band Spine, the Staten Island hardcore collective Vice, and the grindcore-powerviolence group Damaged Goods.

Thu., Nov. 14, 5:30 p.m., 2013

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Shabazz Palaces

In the intro to “Borough Check” Digable Planet’s Ishmael “Butterfly/Ish” Butler and Mary Ann “Ladybug/Mecca” Vieira intone inner city spaces critical to psychic cultural survival of African Americans: “Block party, corner store, downtown, the projects, borough shots, my clique is so tight.” Nearing 10 years later, these mantras have lost a bit of their alchemy due to bulldozers, bills, and renovated brownstones. In spite of that, Ish’s latest clique, Shabazz Palaces, will Black Up in the borough’s centrifuge for the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Arts-sponsored Soul of Brooklyn Festival, featuring “concerts, film screenings, plays, festivals, workshops, art activations and more.” Bless. With abstract random and a THEESatisfaction DJ set.

Sat., Aug. 17, 2 p.m., 2013

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Detroit ’67

“Detroit could be some kinda Mecca,” says a character in Dominique Morrisseau’s play. “Colored folks moving this city forward.” Unfortunately, this lyrical drama takes place on the eve of the ’67 riots and knows that promise will never be fulfilled. The script centers on a brother and sister unwillingly swept into the city’s tumult.

Feb. 26-March 17, 2013

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The Road to Mecca: Karoo for You

Athol Fugard always seems to be writing two plays at once. Each Fugard play is an allegory—political, moral, aesthetic—that at the same time sits embedded rigorously in naturalism. Like walking in two directions at once, the procedure isn’t easy: It gives every new work the dangerous possibility of falling flat on its face. The most remarkable aspect of Fugard’s long career is how often and how effectively he has managed to stand his ground in this artistically shaky condition.

Fugard’s 1984 play, The Road to Mecca, now revived at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, has always struck me as one of his flatter falls, a play that struggles to embody the artist’s thorny relationship to society in a not-quite-convincing story about one confrontational day in the life of an elderly nonconformist. Miss Helen (Rosemary Harris), a Boer widow in a remote village on the Karoo Plain, a favorite Fugard locale, has in the years since her husband’s death gradually distanced herself from her conventionally straitlaced neighbors by turning her front yard into a homemade junk-sculpture garden that she calls her “Mecca,” a vision of a magical faraway city she’ll never visit.

We never see the sculptures, which her neighbors regard as “monsters,” at least according to Marius (Jim Dale), the local minister. Yet Miss Helen’s works have a life-enhancing effect on tormented urban visitors like Elsa (Carla Gugino), a Cape Town schoolteacher who stumbled across Miss Helen’s amateur wonderland in a moment of crisis and became a close friend. A new personal trauma drives Elsa to visit unexpectedly just as Miss Helen must face a crisis of her own: The combination of her increasing frailty and the town’s increasing disapproval makes Marius want to have her committed to an old-age home.

Although he painstakingly refrains from oversimplifying his characters, Fugard explains far too much here (and, worse, hammers away at the explanations). Gordon Edelstein’s solid, somewhat lumpish production, unimaginatively designed, adds to the overall sense of heavy earnestness. Gugino, a forceful performer, signals overassertively; the usually reliable Dale seems distant and uncomfortable even beyond his character’s discomfort with the situation. Only Harris, working her habitual magic, supplies an extra enhancement to make the evening viable, not merely crafting a detailed embodiment of Miss Helen, the self-taught artist as small-town putterer, but infusing it with her personal radiance, which casts a far more enchanting glow than the many prop candles demanded by the script.

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BREAKING GROUND

Bye-bye, Bollywood! For a new generation of South Asian film directors, the major Indian studio system is no longer the be-all and end-all of moviemaking. The South Asian International Film Festival showcases the best works to come from emerging filmmakers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh that dig deeper into the complexities of their subjects’ lives than traditional Bollywood films do. A highlight of the 19-film program includes the opening-night selection Abu, Son of Adam, Salim Ahamed’s debut drama about one Muslim family’s struggle to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. And mark your calendars for November 12 when Shekhar Kapur, director of Bandit Queen, Elizabeth, and The Four Feathers, discusses his transition from Bollywood actor to Hollywood director.

Mondays-Sundays, noon. Starts: Nov. 9. Continues through Nov. 15, 2011

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MAKE SOME NOISE

Mecca for new-music mavens since 1987, the Bang on a Can Marathon returns with two dozen performances guaranteed to benignly recalibrate your sonic continuum at a price anyone can afford: free. This year’s reliably eclectic edition begins with buzz-worthy big-band composer John Hollenbeck’s Perseverance and concludes 12 virtually uninterrupted hours later with Shelter, a collaborative work by BOAC co-founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. In between, you can renew your acquaintance with veteran experimentalists such as composer Iannis Xenakis and guitar improviser Fred Frith; stretch your horizons with Kyrgyzstan folk music, drummer Lukas Ligeti’s Burkina Faso electronics, and Evan Ziporyn’s gamelan-inspired Tire Fire; and hear genres dissolve before your very ears via new works by Black Rock Coalition guitarist Vernon Reid and M-Base saxophonist Steve Coleman. And if the local premiere of Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip doesn’t bang your can, there’s always Triston Perich’s one-bit electronics.

Sun., June 27, noon, 2010

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Free Will Astrology: May 6 through 12

ARIES [March 21–April 19] When they pray, Muslims face the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Every mosque around the world typically has a niche that shows the precise direction of that holy place. Recently, however, worshippers have discovered that many of the older mosques in Mecca have niches that aren’t pointing the right way. They’re concerned that their prayers in the past weren’t aimed correctly. Is it possible that there’s a comparable scenario in your life, Aries? Might you be filled with righteous intentions, but not quite delivering them to the correct location? If so, this is an excellent time to make adjustments.

TAURUS [April 20–May 20] Recently, many British people with unfortunate surnames have changed them. There are now 40 percent fewer Shufflebottoms, while the numbers of Cockshotts and Smellies have also declined. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the government has re-branded its War on Terror, shifting to the more palatable “Overseas Contingency Operation.” I hold these examples up for your inspiration. It’s a good time to alter any name or title you’ve outgrown.

GEMINI [May 21–June 20] I’m going to quote some advice I found on the Internet, “15 Fun Things to Do During a Big, Important Test”: 1) Bring your own private cheerleaders in uniform. Have them cheer whenever you answer a question. 2) Haul in a large, flamboyant idol. Set it next to you and pray to it often. 3) Bring a friend to give you a massage the entire time. Insist this person is needed because your thoughts flow properly only when your circulation is enhanced. 4) Every now and then, clap twice rapidly. If the teacher asks why, say, “The light bulb that goes on above my head when I get an idea is hooked up to a Clapper. DUH!”

CANCER [June 21–July 22] Buster Posey is a baseball player for the San Francisco Giants. The poetic incongruity of his name is an apt symbol for your future: You’ll be called on to be like a “Buster”—a macho, pushy dude who gets things done—but you will also find power in being as delicate and innocent as the small flower bouquet known as a posey. Sometimes, it’ll make sense to be one or the other. On other occasions, you’ll benefit from being in both modes simultaneously.

LEO [July 23–August 22] The Amazing Race is a reality-TV show in which two-member teams compete for money and prizes by doing odd feats in exotic locales. One especially awesome task they performed was carrying 50-pound wheels of cheese down a hill in Switzerland. Everyone started out hauling the wheels on cumbersome wooden backpacks, but hardly anyone was able to make it to the bottom without falling and breaking the backpacks, and having to manually herd the runaway cheese the rest of the way. I foresee a similar fate for you. You’ll be asked to do things that are both fun and frustrating, all in a cause that will be worthwhile.

VIRGO [August 23–September 22] A successful manager in baseball history was Casey Stengel, whose New York Yankees teams won the championship seven times. Before the 1953 season, when the Yankees had already won four consecutive World Series, he said, “If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as smart as we think we are.” I hope some version of those words come out of your mouth, Virgo. As crafty as you are, you’ll have to become even more so to pull off the victory that’s almost within your grasp.

LIBRA [September 23–October 22] This notice appeared on a bulletin board at a local nightclub that features hip-hop DJs: “Missing: my great-grandmother’s necklace, which dropped off my neck while I was krump dancing last Saturday. It might have happened when I was doing a head spin. The necklace has three strands of pearls and a pendant engraved with ‘To Florence, 1927.’ Contact Monique.” I think it’s possible that you’ll soon have an experience somewhat akin to Monique’s. Playing exuberantly in a very modern style could result in you losing something from the old days. Unlike Monique, though, I bet your loss will be liberating.

SCORPIO [October 23–November 21] BBC reported on the growing number of “spiritual tourists” who shop around in their search for inner peace. “We are entering a world,” said one expert, “where people aren’t interested in whether something is true or not, or whether they believe it or not, but whether it works.” That would be a good prescription for you in the coming months, Scorpio. I recommend that you reject any idea or practice unless it has the practical value of making you feel more at home in the world and more accepting of yourself.

SAGITTARIUS [November 22–December 21] For a few days, dissolve every burst of anger that rises up in you. Wrestle it into submission. Attack it with love bombs. If you can eradicate the fury at its source, that would be best. But the most important thing is to use all your ingenuity to keep your hostility, irritation, and snark from reaching the surface and spilling out. And why should you try this seemingly impossible experiment? Because according to my analysis of the omens, it would bring unexpected improvements in your physical and mental health.

CAPRICORN [December 22–January 19] Did you hear about the Korean woman who has failed her driving test 800 times? Or the American man who has filled out job applications at 25 Pizza Huts in 20 cities without being hired? Or the British artist who has completed over 5,000 paintings even though no gallery has ever shown his work? There is something about you that resembles those persistently frustrated people—or at least has resembled them up until now. Soon, I predict, the dogged efforts you’ve made will finally pay off in at least a modest success, and perhaps even more if you’ll make an effort to free your mind of its backlog of sad images.

AQUARIUS [January 20–February 18] According to polls, more than half the population believes they are fantastic kissers. How did they get that way? Some people say they have rehearsed extensively by smooching the backs of their own hands or rubbing their lips up against posters of celebrities. Whether you’ve tried these techniques or have developed other strategies, Aquarius, I advise you to bone up on your skills. Not this week, but soon, you will be entering a prime romantic phase of your astrological cycle—a time when you will have the potential to accomplish wonders and marvels with your mouth.

PISCES [February 19–March 20] How do you deal with those three periods every year when Mercury is retrograde, as it is between May 7 and 30? I’d like you to consider the meditations of artist and activist Gabrielle Senza: “I think of Mercury retrograde as a big obnoxious Rottweiler on a chain that bares its teeth, lunging and barking as I walk by. I can choose to experience it in one of three ways: 1) as a frightening moment that catches me off-guard; 2) as a humorous interlude that allows me to make fun of what I’m afraid of because I know it can’t hurt me; 3) as an opportunity to change my route, usually leading to some wonderful surprise that rewards my instinct to willingly depart from my plans and projections.”

Homework: What gift could you give a friend or loved one in order to change his or her life for the better? Testify at FreeWillAstrology.com.

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Pete Rock’s NY’s Finest

Pete Rock “reminisces” at least five times over the course of NY’s Finest. On “Best Believe,” after Redman coasts on charisma and a sea-creature malaprop, Rock disdains “bubble-gum rap, with a soda on the side.” The Mount Vernon producer—”classic since Rakim was rockin’ a fade”—has emerged to give his calm, assertive flow its most extensive workout in years, and tries to toughen things up even as he recasts the hip-hop past he helped create in alternately fond and chippy terms: “There was a point in time me, Puff, Eddie, and C.L. was friends,” he notes. “I ain’t Rodney King, so I don’t care if we get along.”

He’s moved on from his old gear, too. Once synonymous with SP1200 drum-machine soul splices, Rock’s now a “poster boy for the MPC.” New toy, same sentiment: Here, only the aqueous bleeps of “Til I Retire” reek of a crisper, cleaner aesthetic not down-sampled back to Rock’s ’90s grit. He even recycles. Recognize the stuttering siren sound on “914”? Courtesy of ESG’s rap-worn “UFO,” previously flipped for “Mecca and the Soul Brother.” That 1991 cut with former partner C.L. Smooth predated their eponymous peak LP and offered peaceful braggadocio: “Claim you shoot more rounds than an Uzi/Stop the violence, cause ya can’t do me.” But just as “914” ditches its predecessor’s warm horn refrain, Finest‘s oft-punishing guest verses rarely fuss with goodwill. Styles P sums it up: “I might come through with the Uzi/Shoot niggas, film it on Fuji.”

Content-Agnostic: a pragmatic producer’s religion. But lyrical contradiction rings falser from Rock’s own mouth. “Ready Fe War,” his chameleonic raggaffectation, is sincere. But elsewhere, the same mild-mannered dude who’s “not here to ice grill or gun fight” rhyming wars with whores, or cheerleading gun-clap applause with Dipset? “Bring Y’all Back” sells menace more nimbly with a fat, string-leavened tuba. Which is why it’s easy to forgive Rock’s tough-guy mic folly: His ego’s still mostly wrapped up in matters of MPC prowess. “We Roll” doubles as Sabbath hangover salve and an invitation to get faded before noon. Never mind Dipset’s mush-mouthed Max B—an emphysema-choked geriatric would’ve sounded smooth over those sunny Kool & the Gang synths. Finest is at its finest when the beats ride out wordlessly, and bloodlessly.