Author: 
Sheyma Buali, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2011-10-19 04:39

This week, Edge of Arabia, the platform for Saudi artists, launched their second artist’s book. Adbulnasser Gharem’s monograph, entitled “Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival,” hit the bookshelf at London’s Frieze Art Fair with plans to distribute it worldwide to museums, universities and specialty art book shops.
“Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival” is a direct response to a gap in the production of art books in the Arab world. The book is elegantly designed with images trailing Gharem’s personal life and artistic path. Warmly written by British author Henry Hemming, the book presents three interwoven stories: A loose, short history of Saudi Arabia; the growth of the arts in the Kingdom and Gharem’s own narrative. The book documents stories and processes for local students’ reference, but also offers access to foreigners interested in learning about Saudi culture.
“One of our missions is to lay a foundation for these important artists, as well as the Saudi, Gulf, Middle East art scene as a whole. Books are important building blocks for that, to tell people everywhere that these are significant voices, new commentators in society that deserve to be looked at,” said Director of Edge of Arabia and Co-editor of the book, Stephen Stapleton.
Gharem added to that, reflecting on what was missing in his own path. “I want the book to be available to the new generation,” he says. “Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t have access to many art books. There were some, but they were low in quality with badly printed images. Sometimes, they were even hard to understand. So, I wanted to create something inspirational.”
The book follows Gharem’s life and the noteworthy points of change in Saudi Arabia as influences on his career path. In 1973, the year he was born, King Faisal stopped sales of oil to the United States, which led to a major effect on Saudi Arabia’s economy and lifestyle. Years later, in 1980, there was a reaction against these styles resulting in more gender segregation and censorship. Just under 20 years later, the advent of satellite television and the introduction to the Internet brought new worlds of knowledge and entertainment to the Kingdom, galvanizing a new way of thinking and communicating.
The book goes into anecdotes about many of Gharem’s works. Among them is the piece, “Siraat” (The Path). It was made over 20 years after flash floods hit Gharem’s village of Khamis Mushait. Many people had gone to a newly built bridge for shelter from the flood, but the concrete suspensions were not enough to protect the people from the winds. The bridge gave way, killing almost everyone who had gone to it. The video piece looks at the idea of a “path” followed blindly.
Gharem sees this as a metaphor for life in the Gulf where individuality does not have a role in decision making. The video shows the bridge still suspended in its broken condition — a sight that he had seen for many years but thought of as an incomplete story; a tragedy that was never quite discussed.
Hemming explains this work as a “personal conclusion to this tragedy, a way of memorializing a specific moment within an unwritten history.”
In his work “Flora/Fauna,” Gharem questions why Australian trees, chosen for their suitability for Saudi streets, have been imported, rather than using indigenous trees. To present this, Gharem wrapped himself with the tree in a big plastic bag on a busy street. People were naturally curious, approaching him to see what he was doing, which led to many discussions with passers by.
The work “Manzou” (about to be demolished) looks at illegal living spaces in the south of Saudi Arabia, close to the Yemen border. The people living in these areas are heavily addicted to Qat, a narcotic tobacco. When they were evicted, the government offered the residents a sum to find somewhere else to live, but they used the money for more Qat. By the time Gharem reached them, their living conditions had deteriorated. He sprayed the word “manzou” all over their houses and on his own shirt and took pictures of them. At this point, he explains, he didn’t realize that what he was doing was “art,” but the work did end up getting a lot of media attention about the situation.
Gharem’s questions and concerns, though, have not gone without controversy. The 2008 Edge of Arabia exhibition that kick started their public journey was six years in the making. After the display was set, officials censored three of his pieces (including “Siraat”), leaving him with almost nothing in the show. He was asked to create a new piece as a replacement, which resulted in his work with stamps.
“It was a curse and a blessing,” Gharem says, looking back. In the place of the removed works, he created a giant, functioning stamp with the words “Have a bit of commitment” followed by “Amen,” in both English and Arabic on its underside. The work was inspired by his position in this censorship ordeal as well as his position as a man who works in bureaucracy. He reflected on the “stamp” that allows or disallows activities and events to go on.
“No matter how complex the logic that informed his decisions, these stamps reduced his thought to a single stab,” Hemming writes. And, thus started a series of works surrounding the stamp, its bureaucratic symbol and the irony of its simplicity as a major tool in the government systems versus the complexity of what is being built as development throughout the entire country and region.
Available now in English, the book is currently in process of being translated into Arabic. “We’ve decided to produce two books, first in English, to get approval from the international art world. We are now working on the Arabic version. Gharem is keen on reaching young people in Saudi Arabia and the Arabic speaking world. We’d like this book to speak to them — the new generation there,” explains Stapleton.
“We are planning to do book signings and presentations in college art and design departments. Edge of Arabia has a strong education program so this fits right into it,” adds Gharem.
What results from this is not only education about art for the local population, but also an education about the local art to the rest of the world. “The media has created such a strong narrative about the Middle East and Islamic world. These books may offer a window,” Stapleton explains. “It’s a story, it’s human and hopefully something people can relate to.”

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