The week of Easter, in 2007, I was waiting in line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, when suddenly Pope Benedict XVI burst through the front doors to greet the crowd. The gathered masses — mostly tourists — immediately jumped out of line, falling into a truly ecstatic state, swarming to get a closer look. The experience has stuck in my mind ever since. It felt like the ultimate religious spectacle.
Ahmed Mater’s Mecca Journeys, on view at the Brooklyn Museum, gave my experience at the Vatican a run for its money. Mater’s photographs show some of the millions of pilgrims who gather in Mecca every year for Hajj week. Unlike the Vatican, which is walled-off and separate from the city of Rome, Mecca is an extremely dense urban center, and residents are being displaced by the hotels, shopping centers, and other pilgrim-oriented amenities still being constructed around the Grand Mosque. As Murat Cem Menguc pointed out in his review of Mater’s show, the artist’s documentary works expose “the confrontation between the authentic and imagined Mecca, and of pilgrims with the tourism industry.”
Mecca Journeys includes photographs and videos showing construction workers building the Abraj Al-Bait skyscraper complex (ultra-luxury hotels replace what was once an 18th-century Ottoman fortress), road signs leading to Mecca with designated lanes for Muslims and non-Muslims, fast-food chains facing the entrance of the Grand Mosque, and the neighborhoods where Rohingya immigrants have been displaced by development. The images seem like a critical take on the relationship between religion and capitalism.
But in an email interview with Hyperallergic, Mater is careful not to make any judgments, focusing instead on the facts. “A recent study showed that the ‘faith economy’ was worth $1.2 trillion dollars a year — more than the combined revenues of the 10 biggest tech firms,” he said. Like a scientist — Mater is a medical doctor — he started his project as documentation, recording the lightning-fast development of Islam’s holiest city. Only when the artist realized that the old city was in danger of disappearing did it become something more: “a prayer for Mecca that draws on the past.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Elena Goukassian: How many times have you been to Mecca? How have the experiences been different, and how have they changed over time?
Ahmed Mater: Mecca is in a constant cycle of construction and deconstruction — it’s as if change is the only constant. It was in the middle of the last decade that I went back for the first time since childhood, and I was completely over-awed by how much the city had changed. It had lived so momentously in my memories — as I think it does for anyone living in Saudi Arabia or within the Muslim community, as a place of huge cultural, social, and religious symbolism. That dissonance between the symbolic and the real was a pervasive part of living there. While I was working on the Desert of Pharan project, I spent most of my time living in the city — life is framed by this continual process of familiarization and defamiliarization.
EG: How do you feel about showing non-Muslims places they’d never be able to access on their own?
AM: That is important, and has been a positive outcome of the project over all— it feels particularly significant to be able to show the work in New York, at a time that feels rife with acts of division and overwhelming cultural miscomprehension. But it wasn’t the initial intention behind the project. It began as documentation — I wanted to record what was in the city, what was being eradicated. I saw the place changing before my eyes, the past being lost under the rubble of construction and deconstruction.
As the project progressed and expanded, I began to get a better sense of the many intertwined histories of the place, of all the lives that shape it, and it became more than documentation. I believe that places are equally formed through the urban fabric and through the many stories of many lives that are lived out between the physical spaces. I hope it is a means to preserve the past for the future, whether for Muslim or non-Muslim audiences, so that, even if the infrastructure is altered beyond recognition, there is a way to transmit what the place was before and to keep that alive for the future.
EG: Have you ever been scolded (either officially or unofficially) for filming and taking photos in Mecca?
AM: Mecca is a place of extremes, from the towering skyscrapers to intimate, private interior spaces; it was essential that the project was attuned to these scales. That isn’t something that could be done covertly — it was about meeting people, being invited into their homes, or hovering over the city in a helicopter. I was fortunate enough to gain permits to take the photographs and films that I did. To be “scolded” would imply a kind of transgression. What I really hope comes through in this project is the reverence I have for the place, its history, and its stories.
EG: Have you been to the Vatican? How does the spectacle of religion there compare to that at Mecca?
AM: I’ve never been to the Vatican, but I am fascinated by the ways in which the structures (both physical and conceptual) of religion and urban infrastructures intertwine and shape each other. There is, of course, a big difference between religion and faith — the ways in which faith manifests spectacle is more human, more ecstatic and experiential. Both religion and faith, and their spectacles, are found in major religious epicenters, such as the Vatican and Mecca, but it’s prevalent elsewhere, too.
EG: Do you feel your work is nostalgic at all?
AM: My work is a prayer for Mecca that draws on the past. There are so many different narratives, scales, stories both human and urban in the city — I felt compelled to record them to try to get a sense of the complexity of the place. The work is about histories — that is narratives, plurality, mining cause and effect, radiating the intersecting stories that congregate around different places or moments. I think that there can be something nostalgic about that. The urge to preserve is about retaining elements of the past. I hope that there is a productive use for them, a way to use them to understand the present, too.