“I want to change that text culture to a visual thing, because the people here they didn’t used to the visual or to the images because it was prohibited”— Abdulnasser Gharem
I am obsessed with artist Abdulnasser Gharem for two reasons. First, he is brave enough to use art to challenge censorship traditions in a culture greatly controlled by its government and second because he lives a double life as a Major in the Saudi Arabian Army.
So I was checking NPR’s recent articles— ’cause I am weird and prefer reading them to listening to them— and I stumbled upon an interview Gharem gave to NPR reporter Renee Montagne. Immediately I am impressed with how boldly Gharem expresses himself in such a censored and conflicted country. I’ll put the link at the end of my gushing because I am sure you will want to read it.
One of the first questions Montagne asks regards one of his first performances in 2007 delivered in his home town of Khamis Mushait (near Abha) in which he wrapped himself and a tree up in plastic. Performance art was an early solution to the problem of reaching people with his art. He said that there was no art in his city, no museum, no gallery, nothing for him to exhibit in. So Gharem asks himself, “Why should I wait for them? Why don’t I just go to the main street of my city and just do the performance? Just go and connect with a real audience.” I love it! He puts the situation in his control and just strolls on down to the main street of his hometown and wraps himself up with a tree. His performance that day was a criticism of the government; he was challenging their decision to plant a foreign trees that were now sickening native trees. This kind of political criticism is nothing new in the US where we have so many people involved with activism that there we’re bombarded with a “Rights for [any cause]” promotion until we’re apathetic to pleas, but these organizations do not exist in Saudi Arbia. So Gharem’s actions are very radical and possibly dangerous. But he goes further, he is trying to actually begin a tradition of visual art in Saudi Arabia.
You see, even since ancient times Middle Eastern culture forbade the use of images. In their religion, images are regarded as idols so instead of a culture of imagery what developed was a rich artistic tradition of nonobjective design, such as elaborate floral motifs on tapestries, colorful complicated patterns on walls, beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and of course amazing feats of architectural engineering. But images, short of gods and important political figures in historical and religious texts, are very rare and follow very specific guidelines. Talking about censorship Gharem admits that, “I’m trying to be careful with these things. You know, with the social media, I think no one now can block anyone or not letting anyone to show what he want. But I’m a little bit worried. I can’t do that sort of show — the one I just did in London — in Saudi Arabia. I think it would not be allowed, to be honest.”
So Gharem’s efforts to bring a new art culture Saudi Arbia is as ambitious as it precarious. A lot of his work he has to show outside of the country, such as his instillations and recent exhibition of paintings in London where he is allowed more liberalism. Gharem has achieved international fame for recently becoming the highest selling living Gulf Artist when his instillation “Messege/Messenger” made history at an auction in Dubai by selling at a record price. The artist, staying ever true to his goal of encouraging visual art traditions for his homeland, donated all the proceeds to the art education organization Edge of Arabia, of which he is a founding member.
Aside from instillations and performance art, Gahrem also makes art that comments on international events and his duties as a part of a bureaucracy. His three-foot tall stamps are larger-than-life interpretations of the bureaucratic seals he employs in his day job — as a lieutenant colonel in Saudi Arabia’s army. He was inspired by the authority stamps give to documents that receive their marking. In his country, anything that is of importance— birth certificates, licenses, marriage contracts, vacation documents,anything asserting value— gets a stamp marking its importance. He uses stamps often in his work for the army and noticed that the younger generation rebels against the requirement to obtain approval through stamps. This piece illustrates a gap dividing the youth and the elderly, and blames bureaucracy for creating the divide. He also has a painting commemorating the 9/11 attack in America. Bearing the titled “Pause” the painting is very but very moving. It is simplified to the extreme in a very flattened perspective using only graphic shapes, two shades of grey, and a streak of yellow. But it simplicity allows you to immediantly recognize what is happening in the image; literally it forces you to stop to consider the event for a moment. I am just going to paste what he said in the interview right here because I could not summarize what he says about this painting and maintain the same impact:
“That painting, I call it “Pause” because it’s related to 9/11. You know, in that moment, I think the whole world were like someone pushed that button: pause. And the 19 who were in the airplane, most of them are from Saudi Arabia, and two of them, I was studying with them. They were with me in the same schools. … They were with me in the high schools, and I was wondering why did they choose this path while we have the same knowledge. We were in the same school, we were sitting next together, and I don’t know why did they choose that path. It was a crazy thing, to be honest.”
So yeah, I am just kind of obsessed with this man and what he is doing for his country. Sometimes we really do not appreciate the freedom we have to create like we should. We can be artists, we can be writers, we can be performers, and we can be collectors of whatever kind of art we want. This is a great thing and when there is so much in life that we cannot control, at least we have art— in any form— to satisfy our desire for expression of whatever needs to be expressed.
Here’s Gharem’s NPR interview
And here is his awesome website: