Soldier-turned-artist wants world to hear Saudi Arabia’s voice

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Camouflage, 2017, by Abdulnasser Gharem. (Courtesy of Gharem Studio)
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Hemisphere, 2017, by Abdulnasser Gharem. (Courtesy of Gharem Studio)
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Ricochet, 2015, by Abdulnasser Gharem. (Courtesy of Gharem Studio)
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The Path (Siraat), 2012, by Abdulnasser Gharem. (Courtesy of Gharem Studio and Edge of Arabia)
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Saudi soldier-turned-artist Abdulnasser Gharem. (John Sciulli for LACMA)
Updated 30 September 2017

Soldier-turned-artist wants world to hear Saudi Arabia’s voice

LONDON: Saudi soldier-turned-artist Abdulnasser Gharem thinks it is time the world heard more about the Kingdom’s art scene.
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.”

‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition in Riyadh museum breathes new life into ancient sites 

Updated 19 April 2019

‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition in Riyadh museum breathes new life into ancient sites 

  • National Museum in Riyadh hosts digital show that tells the story of Mosul, Palmyra, Aleppo and Leptis Magna

JEDDAH: An exhibition that uses digital technology to revive the region’s ancient sites and civilizations that have been destroyed or are under threat due to conflict and terrorism opened at the National Museum in Riyadh on April 18.

“Age-Old Cities” tells the story of four historically significant cities that have been devastated by violence: Mosul in Iraq, Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria, and Leptis Magna in Libya. 

Using stunning giant-screen projections, virtual reality, archival documents and images, and video testimonials from inhabitants of the affected sites, the immersive exhibition transports visitors back in time and presents the cities as they were in their prime. 

It charts their journey from the origins of their ancient civilizations to their modern-day state, and presents plans for their restoration and repair. 

The exhibition has been organized by the Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Riyadh is the first stop outside the French capital on the exhibition’s global tour. 

The exhibition follows last month’s unveiling of the Kingdom’s new cultural vision, which included the announcement of several initiatives, including a new residency scheme for international artists to practice in the Kingdom and the establishment of the Red Sea International Film Festival. 

Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud, minister of culture, said: “I am delighted to welcome the ‘Age-Old Cities’ exhibition to Riyadh. 

“It highlights the importance of heritage preservation, particularly here in the Middle East, and the vulnerability of some of our historic sites. 

“It must be the responsibility of governments to put an end to this damage and neglect, and to put heritage at the heart of action, investment, and policy.

“I will be encouraging my fellow members of government to attend this eye-opening exhibition in our National Museum, and hope to work in the future with partners, governments and experts to do what we can to secure our region’s heritage.”

The exhibition carries a significant message about the importance of preserving and protecting these precious but fragile sites — one which resonates strongly in the week when one of the world’s most-famous heritage sites, Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral, went up in flames.