Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem gains global recognition for his thought-provoking work

On June 19, the Saudi Arabian artist traveled to Canada to present his life-sized conceptual piece “Paradise Has Many Gates” at the Vancouver Biennale. (Photo supplied)
Updated 17 July 2018

Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem gains global recognition for his thought-provoking work

  • Ajlan Gharem traveled to Canada to present his life-sized conceptual piece “Paradise Has Many Gates” at the Vancouver Biennale
  • Probing issues of religious orthodoxy, education and Islamophobia, the wall-less structure presents a paradoxical sanctuary

DENVER: Places of worship fill many roles in society — and an art installation in the shape of a mosque can invoke polarizing reactions in different lands, as Ajlan Gharem has discovered.
On June 19, the Saudi Arabian artist traveled to Canada to present his life-sized conceptual piece “Paradise Has Many Gates” at the Vancouver Biennale. An interactive installation which renders the unmistakable outline of a mosque in a skeleton cage of cold steel, the work will stand at the city’s Vanier Park — a high-profile public space also home to many museums and music festivals — for two years, during which it will host workshops, talks and performances.
“It’s not just something to show — it’s going to be a new space for ideas, for dialogue, for a new kind of conversation,” Gharem told Arab News.
It is a significant platform for a Saudi artist to exhibit at the noted open-air sculpture and performance festival, which has previously commissioned large-scale public works from Chinese A-lister Ai Weiwei, and this year will welcome Yoko Ono to accept its Distinguished Artist Award.
And it will hopefully offer a happier chapter in the work’s stormy story. “Paradise Has Many Gates” has, in the past, been suddenly pulled from two public appearances, and sparked a violent, viral, social-media debate.
Probing issues of religious orthodoxy, education and Islamophobia, the wall-less structure presents a paradoxical sanctuary. A comfy traditional rug lines the floor, yet there is threatening intent to the glaring fluorescent lights that switch on at sundown. The structure is made from the severe steel fencing normally reserved for cages and border disputes — attracting comparisons to both US military prison compound Guantanamo Bay and the fortifications used to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. The dual imagery perhaps shouts loudest at the five times of the day when the call to prayers emerges, recorded in voices drawn from a variety of Muslim-majority countries.
The installation is one of the first major works from 32-year-old Gharem — younger brother of leading Saudi conceptual artist Abdulnasser Gharem. Inspiration struck when the artist found himself approaching 30, astride a growing generational divide between the Kingdom’s elders and established traditions, and the swelling ranks of youthful voices — with estimates placing around 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population under 30 years of age. His website states: “The mosque is a conduit for the symbolic power wielded by all those above the unwitting individual… The mosque is the public square reincarnate but with attendance mandatory, at least socially.”
Aware of the charged nature of his subject, Gharem first erected “Paradise Has Many Gates” in the desert, an hour’s drive outside of Riyadh, conceiving the temporary structure as the subject of a four-minute short film to be presented at galleries overseas. He also shot a series of photographs before disassembling his work the following day without attracting attention. However, when he later shared an image of the piece on social media, it ignited a heated reaction he had not anticipated.
“People started saying ‘This is a mosque made of fences. It’s like a cage,’” the artist recalled. “It was posted on everyone’s account, everywhere — when I opened my timeline all I could see were pictures of the mosque with people saying something bad, or something good. That’s why I was afraid.”
That fear led Gharem to pull the photographs from their planned debut at “Ricochet,” a group show at London’s Asia House, in 2015. He eventually “had the courage” to share the images for the first time at a later exhibition, entitled “In Search of Lost Time,” at London’s Brunei Gallery, SOAS, in early 2016.
The structure itself has proved equally divisive. Later that same year, “Paradise Has Many Gates” was erected in the parking lot of Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art; its first physical appearance since its brief stint in the desert. It was part of another group Saudi showcase entitled “Parallel Kingdom,” and was quickly embraced by the community as everything from a place of worship to a quiet yoga spot. After several weeks, it was all set to be packed up and shipped for exhibition in Aspen, Colorado — but organizers mysteriously pulled the plug at the last minute. Gharem’s mosque stayed in Texas all summer.
And in December, the piece’s projected four-month appearance in Bahrain was cut short after just 24 hours, when people began to use the installation as an actual mosque, and prayed inside.
Such setbacks, Gharem said, only confirmed his belief in the strength of the concept behind “Paradise Has Many Gates.”
“They couldn’t make any reason for why they’re going to take it out — they couldn’t understand… (didn’t) realize what was happening,” he said. “This is good, when you have an idea that brings people together, and you see people you are just afraid of this idea.”
The work’s two-year appearance at Vancouver will undoubtedly raise Gharem’s profile considerably, positioning him at the forefront of the emerging wave of Saudi Arabian artists finding success abroad. However, art is just a part-time calling — Gharem also serves as an elementary school mathematics teacher, a position he is in no hurry to abandon.
“For me the teaching thing is good, it gives me a chance to be among the people, among the society — the revolution is in the kids,” he said. “So, I’m a math teacher by day, and an artist by night.”
Gharem’s first significant solo work was “Mount of Mercy,” an evolving series of heartfelt photographs left by pilgrims visiting the religious site also known as Mount Arafat. Gharem drew from more than 10,000 images he has collected during repeated visits to Makkah over the past six years.
He was encouraged to find his own voice after a decade spent “helping” his famous older brother: Inspired by the lack of institutional support the younger artist encountered, the pair co-founded Gharem Studio, a nourishing, not-for-profit organization offering studio space, training, careers guidance and resources to Riyadh’s growing rank of young artists.
“The scene has really picked up in the last five years,” Gharem said. “Even just three, four years ago, you could only find 10 or 15 artists representing Saudi. Since then everyone has tried to be an artist and gone with the wave. I think now is the time for us, because everything is moving so quickly — at this time we start to see our problems, our issues… Everything is starting to reveal in front of us.
“Now the role of art is to start doing something,” he continued. “It’s the most important time to be an artist.”

King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

Updated 21 April 2019

King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

  • The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps
  • The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world

RIYADH: King Abdulaziz Public Library provides a key index of Saudi culture, presenting the world with a rich legacy of cultural, historical and literary diversity.

On World Heritage Day, April 18, the library highlighted its efforts in preserving cultural heritage, which makes it one of the most important libraries in the Arab and Islamic world. It possesses a variety of heritage treasures in manuscripts, documents, rare books, coins and photographs. The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps.

The library has established a knowledge-based space to produce large collections of specialized books on the history of the Kingdom and in the Arab and Islamic worlds while continuing to use its knowledge system in line with Vision 2030 and the cultural strategy of the Ministry of Culture.

The library’s special holdings consist of manuscripts, rare books, rare documents, rare maps, rare photographs and coins. These form an integrated picture and are characterized by rare historical scenes that stimulate research.

The library established the Manuscripts Department in 1988 to contribute to the preservation of Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers and investigators. The department has more than (4,400) original manuscripts in addition to more than (700) photocopies and microfilms, including the charts of the Institute of History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. More than 3,500 manuscripts have been indexed and filed in the computer system.

The library in Riyadh, the pioneer in publishing heritage, has digitized all of its manuscripts — more than two million of them — and stored them on CDs.

The library contains a collection of rare books of ancient and rare European editions, consisting of 78 books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The collection also includes 113 translated books in ancient European languages of the Holy Qur’an, as well as 55 books on Qur’anic studies and 54 books on Islamic sources. This collection represents the beginnings of European interest in the Holy Qur’an and its studies. The library acquired a collection of Arabic editions printed in Europe in 1592-1593. These editions are part of the library’s interest in the original Arab and Islamic heritage. They include rare books such as The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Rhetoric Mysteries by Abd Al-Qahir Al-Jurjani, a commentary on the “Isagoge” by Abu l-Faraj at-Tayyib, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Jalal Al-Din Al Suyuti, as well as 8,271 rare Arabic indexed books.

The library hosts a number of private collections, including that of the American orientalist George Rantz. This collection has many books, manuscripts, maps and rare documents, containing books in Arabic and 3,265 books in foreign languages. It also has the collection of Hamza Boubakeur, dean of the Islamic Institute and former imam of Paris Mosque. It is an integrated collection with 17,170 titles of 19,821 volumes of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, documents, newspaper clippings, rare books and books in Arabic, French, English, German and Russian. It includes books on scientific and religious sciences, and tourist literature that describes countries, their heritage, customs and traditions, and is linked to Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf and the Islamic world.

The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world, with a total of 5,564 single original photographs or collections in albums, taken by the most famous photographers of the East and the Arab world since the beginning of photography in 1740, as well as photographs taken by travelers, sea captains, military personnel, envoys, consuls and politicians who visited the region from the middle of the last century until the beginning of this century. This archive of photographs is one of the most unique in the world.

The library has 365 photographs of the two Holy Mosques with previously unpublished negatives. These photographs were taken by the Egyptian international photographer Ahmad Pasha Helmi, who was commissioned by King Farouk to photograph the two Holy Mosques during the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Makkah and Medina, in addition to a collection of albums depicting the Hijaz railway and other parts of the Kingdom.

Official and non-official documents are important scientific materials in the writing of history. Nations rely on collecting their documents, archiving them and making them available for study. The library in Riyadh has been keen to acquire rare documents and books, especially on the history of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the history of Saudi Arabia, and to allocate a special section for them. These documents include:

George Rantz records: in English, French and Arabic, covering the period from 1930 to 1960.
Documents of the Egyptian and Arab press on the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Egypt.
Documents of the American press about King Saud’s visit to the US.
Documents on oil agreements between the Kingdom and some American companies.
Documents of the British press regarding the war between the British forces and the forces of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman against the forces of the imam of Oman, and the effects of this war on the region and the position of the Saudi state and King Saud of this war.
Abdul Rahman Azzam’s collection of documents (in Arabic and English) covering the period from 1925 to 1960.
Correspondence reflecting the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia to the Mosque of Paris and Makkah pilgrims.
The British collection of documents on King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (English), covering the period from 1800 to 1953. These are photocopies of the original documents and constitute one of the most important sources of the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Khair Al-Din Al-Zarkali’s collection of documents: (in Arabic) covering the period from 1920 to 1975.
The library also has 700 rare maps, especially of the Arabian Peninsula, dating from 1482. The library has acquired more than 7,600 rare gold, silver and bronze coins, dating back to different Islamic times.

World Heritage Day was proposed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites on April 18, 1982 and approved by UNESCO in 1983 with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of cultural heritage and protecting it.