Disarm, from the series, Desert of Pharan

Artist: Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia, born 1979)
Historical period(s)
Polyester color transparencies mounted to Plexiglas on a lightbox
H x W (each lightbox): 35 × 41 × 5 cm (13 3/4 × 16 1/8 × 1 15/16 in) H x W (assembled): 177 × 82 × 5 cm (69 11/16 × 32 5/16 × 1 15/16 in)
Saudi Arabia
Credit Line
Purchase — funds provided by the Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view


Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Provenance research underway.

Ahmed Mater works in a variety of media, including painting, performance, installations, and photography. His works often resonate with the tension between religious tradition and the realities of contemporary Saudi Arabian life. Since 2010, he has focused especially on photography and video to explore the social impact of the political and economic changes taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Desert of Pharan is Mater’s first long-form photographic project, produced after spending a year living in Mecca and gaining unique access to its inhabitants and the many migrant workers rebuilding the city. At the core of this massive urbanization project is the destruction of historic architecture and the expansion of the Grand Mosque. The familiar, mountainous horizon once dominated by the Kaaba is being transformed into a high-rise complex of luxury amenities to accommodate the growing religious tourism industry and affirm political authority in a globally important site. Under the glow of the iconic clock tower—Mecca’s new dominant symbol—luxury hotels, condominiums, shopping malls, and enormous prayer rooms are reshaping the city. Photographing from the edges of the diminishing old city or from within the gleaming new towers at its center, Mater presents a multifaceted view of the stunning scale of destruction and reconstruction.

Disarm is a culmination of the series and represents Mater’s own development as a photographer. Both format and content recall his first experiments with x-ray imaging, earlier aerial views of Saudi Arabia’s scarred landscapes, and his growing concern for the social and environmental impact of urbanization. In still shots of footage from military surveillance cameras, Mecca becomes an alien place where the clock tower tilts in cold blue light, dirt construction roads cut through the landscape, and illegal immigrants cross mountains in the night. Disarm effectively conveys not only the changing mood of a place, but also links Mater to an important chapter in the evolution of photography. These ten views of Mecca recall the military roots of the aerial perspective and its impact on perceptions of place. Furthermore, the notion of the surveillance eye is a major theme in contemporary photography.

Collection Area(s)
Arts of the Islamic World, Contemporary Art
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