Revisiting the Hijrah of the Prophet Muhammad and the birth of Islam from a modern perspective, ‘Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet’ also casts a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning art scene
During my visit to Saudi Arabia, my first impression was that the country is continuing to pave the way when it comes to innovative art exhibitions. Adding to the host of awe-inspiring events is the new exhibition presented by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, also known as Ithra.
“Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet” is one of the greatest stories ever told, focusing on the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. Providing an artistic retelling of this significant story, the exhibition showcases the artistic heritage of the local community to the world.
Ithra’s show revisits the birth of Islam from a modern perspective. Taking a multidisciplinary approach, the exhibition delivers new insights within a modern context. Curated by Ithra’s in-house team, in collaboration with some of the world’s leading authorities on the Hijrah, the exhibition traces the physical route of the Prophet Mohammad’s journey to explore its historical significance and bring the human story of the Hijrah to the fore. It is presented in collaboration with the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, the House of Islamic Arts in Jeddah, the King Abdulaziz Complex for Endowment Libraries in Medina and Turquoise Mountain, a Prince of Wales charity supporting arts and heritage in the Middle East. The exhibition also features a collaboration with several scholars and artists who help bring the journey to life through commissioned art pieces, a documentary film and a book narrating the story of the Hijrah.
The show features a range of historical artifacts, immersive audio-visual technologies, newly commissioned artworks, academic research, a theater performance and a cinematic retelling. All of the displays are designed to provide enlightening perspectives on the 400-kilometer (248-mile) migration between the two cities in eight days that had an immeasurable impact on the social, political and economic landscape of the Arab Peninsula, leading to the birth of a community that today includes more than 1.5 billion people. The overriding significance of the Hijrah can be defined as the transition from the practice of Islam as an act of worship to a way of life and “Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet” presents that journey to a modern audience.
“As one of the most detailed studies ever of the history and topography of the Hijrah, this exhibition exemplifies Ithra’s wider mission to tell the world’s defining stories through art, heritage, culture and research,” Abdullah Al-Rashid, director of Ithra, says. The exhibition provides a look into the history of the legacy of the significant migration from different perspectives, including science, physical geography, material culture, theology, art and cultural memory. The exhibition represents significant advances in academic research surrounding the history of Islam while its focus on the human story surrounding the journey and shared human values also promotes greater understanding, empathy and tolerance.
Moreover, “Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet” is Ithra’s first traveling exhibition. It is set to be exhibited across Saudi Arabia, then globally during its five-year run, sharing new perspectives and findings on the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. It is developed in collaboration with partners from key regional and international organizations who have lent pieces, many of which have never been publicly displayed before, to augment key commissioned items for the exhibit.
Zahran al-Ghamdi’s “Brotherhood” artwork is one of the standouts of the “Hijrah: In the Footsteps of the Prophet.” exhibition. Al-Ghamdi is a leading Saudi artist who has exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the British Museum. Her large-scale works use natural materials such as earth, clay, rocks, leather and water to resist the confines of the gallery space and explore ephemeral structures set within vast landscapes.
While touring the exhibition, al-Ghamdi told me that after researching the Hijrah story, she wanted to create an artwork that expressed the concept of “brotherhood,” which developed between the muhajireen, those who emigrated from Mecca with the Prophet Muhammad, and the ansar – those in Medina that took in the migrants from Mecca.
“I wanted the piece to both express the hardships the muhajireen experienced in migrating and the kind and selfless act of the ansar for welcoming the muhajireen into their home, and supporting them by sharing everything they owned. Therefore, I sought to make a large installation that highlights this bond and the strength of their roots in creating a fruitful relationship. Using natural materials (a nod to the natural landscape of the Hijrah), I combined the elasticity of the fabrics and the softness of the clay. I dipped the fabrics in mud and knotted them together in different sizes. These knots are meant to signify the close relationships that are rich in altruism and love between the ansar and muhajirrun, and the differently colored merging strands represent the growth and strength of the roots of a great tree. Through this work, I am making an appeal to revive and bring to life this concept of brotherhood, which gives meaning to life.”