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Meshal Al-Obaidallah: Preserving Saudi Culture Through Digital Relics

Saudi artist Meshal Al-Obaidallah explores memory amid rapid social transformation through his practice.

Farah Desouky

Meshal Al-Obaidallah: Preserving Saudi Culture Through Digital Relics

Photos by Arif Alnomay

After stumbling upon a discarded iPhone 6 and an untraceable seven-second video, conceptual Saudi artist Meshal Al-Obaidallah challenges our digital memory and the transience of online artefacts.

Amidst the overflow of digital gadgets in landfills and the abundance of online content, coupled with the challenge of tracking personal archives due to the sheer volume of what we produce, Al-Obaidallah questions our collective ability to remember and archive effectively. His project, ‘IMG_0220: Physical Preservations of a Once-Lost Internet Video’, initially showcased at the International Biennial of Contemporary Art of the South at the Saudi Arabia Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMoCA) in JAX, Diriyah, delves into the preservation of digital relics from the past.

Creating a seven-second loop, Al-Obaidallah highlights the fleeting nature of digital content, raising questions on what he refers to as ‘society’s collective and deliberate amnesia’. Through rows of cassettes, VHS tapes, and postcards, he presents a poignant commentary on the challenge of preserving cultural symbols and methods of communication from the past.

As an independent artist and curator based in Riyadh, Al-Obaidallah's practice centres on preserving our ever-changing present culture. In a rapidly transforming Saudi Arabia, he confronts themes of remembrance and collective amnesia, focusing on what society deliberately chooses to forget. Through his project, Al-Obaidallah invites viewers to reflect on the fragility of digital memory and the significance of preserving our cultural heritage for future generations.

How did you come across the video, and why did you decide to preserve it physically?

To me, it's not really about the content of the video, but it’s more about how the video was lost. We have this conception that everything stays online forever, but that's not true. In my practice, I document everything, so even my old iPhone was able to link and trace all the footage on it, except for that video. I couldn't find the source, and it was really bothering me. That's why I preserved it physically, on VHS and cassette tapes, and in photos.

I don't have any details on the reactions to the video when it first circulated. This idea of ‘lost media’ resonates with me deeply. Trust me, I looked very hard for it online; it is untraceable, and I'm preserving it through this library.

Do you remember the initial online reactions to this video?

Any context that I provide is speculative because the video was reappropriated and taken out of the context of 2015. To me, it's not really about the content of the video, but it’s more about how the video was lost. We kind of have this conception that everything stays online forever, but that's not true. In my practice, I document everything, so even my old iPhone was able to link and trace all the footage on it, except for that video. I couldn't find the source, and it was really bothering me. That's why I preserved it in physical manners, as VHS and cassette tapes, photos.

When people talk about preservation they are usually concerned with ancient histories, how do you tackle that contrast in your work?

Interestingly, when I was showing the library at the museum, I used to go every day. Many people thought this video was from the 90s because of its content. It gives off this impression, and they would get shocked when they found out it’s actually from 2015-2016. I think this confusion is precisely why I'm concerned with preserving the contemporary.

Why cassette tapes?

Cassette tapes symbolize the rapid change in Saudi culture. They highlight our loss of perception regarding this change.

Why reappropriate the video in a vivid, colourful manner?

The presentation mimics online media sharing in real life. The IMG007 library reflects how we share media online, with postcards and books serving as physical equivalents of tweets or Instagram posts for instance. Many people noticed how colourful the exhibit was, which was deliberate, it was meant to feel like the internet in physical form.

As a young artist who has witnessed the rise of the internet, and is concerned about its themes, how does that influence your practice?

I began incorporating internet culture into my practice, particularly during the COVID lockdown, and I think it’s become especially more apparent because of the cultural shift occurring in Saudi Arabia.

How do you ensure your art remains accessible to a wide audience? Is accessibility a deliberate aim or a result of the themes that concern you?

I think my work is relatable and accessible because it's based on cultural artefacts that people already know very well. So, ever since my first art series, the Everyday Shemagh, I've used it to talk about Arab identity. My work has always revolved around everyday objects and artefacts, whether it's an internet video or a traditional shemagh. I feel like that is what makes my work approachable.

How do you utilize documentation to comment on societal issues?

My work is documentation rather than direct commentary, like a snapshot of society. While I acknowledge that documentation can be a form of commentary, I strive to remain neutral, embedding my 'commentary' within the documentation itself.

Where is the project going?

The library's aim is to mimic how we share media online but in real life. With the project starting in Diriyah at SAMOCA, I plan to have the same library experience travel the world. Even for those unable to physically visit the exhibit, they can still experience it through the website . Many people simply want to save the video—the same one that was once lost is now back online. The whole point of the library was to reintroduce that video into circulation. Hopefully, in the upcoming iteration, more people will get to experience the digital library as well.

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