Soldier-turned-artist wants world to hear Saudi Arabia’s voice
Soldier-turned-artist wants world to hear Saudi Arabia’s voice
He has just completed his first exhibition at California-based Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He told Arab News that it represented a turning point in his career. “There were over 80,000 visitors to my show from April to July,” he said, visibly pleased. “It was amazing because in Saudi Arabia we don’t yet have (many) art galleries, so it was a chance get our voice heard.”
His show “Abdulnasser Gharem: Pause” brought together work influenced by Gharem’s experiences following the Sept. 11 Twin Towers attacks. Two of the hijackers had been his school classmates. “To me, in that moment, it was like the whole world stopped … it felt like a pause. That realization was the inspiration behind my work and then the idea of the show followed,” he said in an interview with CNN International’s “Inside the Middle East” program at the time of the show.
The 44-year-old Riyadh-based artist continued: “It made me think about the situation that my old classmates were in. We grew up in the same environment, I found so many similarities in our situations, so it was at that moment, really, that I started to look for my own path.”
The exhibition consisted of 11 works, including sculptures as well as film and print pieces.
One of the newer pieces, created in 2017, is titled “Camouflage” and shows an army tank with an orange flower painted on its cannon in front of an Iranian mosque. The piece is chock-full of political messages relating to arms deals and sectarianism in the Middle East.
Another noteworthy piece is “The Path (Siraat),” a three-minute performative video and silkscreened photograph of a broken bridge in Saudi Arabia. An image of a damaged road leading into darkness is repeatedly emblazoned with the words “The Path” in an eerie and powerful visual loop.
Gharem was in the army for 23 years before he branched out as a full-time artist, earning the accolade of the highest-paid living Arab artist when he sold a piece of installation art for $842,500 at Christie’s Dubai in 2011.
“I have been in many places. The war affects the artist in every way. Trends in society evolve after war,” he explained.
“You can see all the military elements in my work, such as tanks and airplanes. I’m a contemporary artist so my issues are related to my current life.”
Although the media and platforms for Gharem’s work borrow from the mainstream of modern art, the narratives and images are drawn from his everyday world, while many of his motifs — including geometric designs and floral arabesques — belong to the canon of Islamic art.
Gharem said: “I’m trying to say a lot of things. Saudi Arabians are complaining that they are stereotyped by the world, but no one from my country is trying to change it. Contemporary art is the best medium for showing your side of the story. The piece is complete and can be engaged with. It’s an international language.”
He continued, “I’m trying to research my heritage and infuse it with contemporary art and use this to represent us because no one else is touching it.
“We don’t have artists who dig into their history and show it through the new medium or a medium that everyone can understand. It’s a mission of mine.”
Gharem’s next show will be in Washington DC in six months’ time and showcase new instalments, he says.
“There are many themes to my work. It’s like Saudi Arabia is made of mosaics. I’m trying to display social issues and turn them into something global so that the people will see that we have our own perspective and our own voice.
“For example, the phenomenon of terrorism. It’s not just an issue that affects the West. It’s multi-sided. It’s affecting everyone, we (Saudi Arabia) are also suffering from that.”
“I can speak directly through the artwork. It’s an opportunity to speak to the media and the world without a middle man.”
Gharem says there is a small but promising art movement in Saudi Arabia, but he calls for more government support.
“There are no museums, no facilities, no art schools and no proper galleries — but there is a movement. The country has some very talented young artists.
“The government needs to realize the importance of culture’s role in society. It’s only through culture that society can understand its people and its how the international community can understand us.”
Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran
LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”