Saudi Arabia has found its first ‘conceptual Islamic artist’ by most means: Nasser Al Salem.
Last week, Athr Gallery unveiled his first solo exhibition ‘And it remains…’ — a further testimony of Al Salem’s allegiance to translating forms of Islamic text into contemporary forms of artistic interpretation.
He’s been a constant participating figure in many international fairs for the past two years since his emergence onto the art scene, representing himself as the staunch hand of contemporary Islamic art from Saudi Arabia.
While two of his older works ‘Zamzam’ and ‘Kaaba’ — a series of seven silkscreen prints — have been hosted at previous exhibitions, the former has been acquired into the collection of the British Museum. With new works exhibited at ‘And it remains…’, Al Salem has shed a couple more layers of his shell to claim unconquered ground in the field of conceptual Islamic art in Saudi Arabia.
‘Zamzam’, which is a calligraphic representation of both the structure and the word, is indeed a work of artistic genius. The script in this work, which can be read in all directions, only adds to the ingenuity of his conceptual analysis, at once echoing the celebration of God’s bounty and wondrous manifestation.
The flow of the script in ‘Zamzam’, according to the artist, also indicates the pace of running by Hajar (mother of Prophet Ismail) between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwa in search of water for her infant son (a ritual commemorated by millions of the faithful in the holy pilgrimage to Makkah) which led to the revelation of the holy Zamzam well. According to some traditions, this well was sprung by the striking wing/heel of Angel Gabriel — feeding millions of pilgrims today since antiquity without any sign of exhaust.
An eight-point star in the middle of the script is a reference to the throne of God, while the calligraphic text in its fluid form and style conforms to the cycle of infinity — of both the bounty of God and his expansive universe.
‘God is alive, He shall not die’ is a series of three pop (and the most ‘popular’) neon installations in colors of blue, green and white; referring to the trinity of sky, earth and the purity of the creator’s reign both above and below.
‘He likes not those who commit excess’ — a wooden installation in the likes of a barcode — is truly a reminder for us as a nation and as a religious community headed toward vulgarly excessive mass consumerism in both material and manner. Moreover, the intended reprimand stands just and appropriate for the month of Ramadan when expenses quite unnaturally and surprisingly quadruple in comparison to the rest of the year (thank you, Nasser!).
Kul (‘everything/all’; one of my personal favorites) is a series of three silkscreen works that quite literally provides an eyeful for the unprepared eye and mind (Trippy visuals much!).
While the heady optical illusions might appeal to those of a younger disposition in terms of aesthetics and rhetoric, the rippling effect achieved to reiterate the aspect of God’s infinite creation might as well lead you to ponder over the everlasting omnipresence of the creator, if nothing else (as you look away).
This unexpectedly bold attempt by the shy and modest Al Salem deserves a loud applause.
“It’s sometimes just a bit difficult translating classic religious texts and messages into contemporary forms of art. I have to represent the meanings very well, without having the contemporary elements of the work overpowering the idea. They have to complement each other very well,” said Al Salem.
“I have to continually go back to references, do a lot of research. It’s a responsibility but I’m very proud of it. It allows me to introduce new concepts — religious and social,” he shared further.
While some of his other works like ‘La illaha illa Allah’(there is no God but Allah), ‘Sukoon’ (peace), ‘Elm Aleem’ (the All-Knowing), ‘Khair’ (goodwill), ‘Rahma’ (mercy) and ‘Barakah’ (blessings) reflect Al Salem’s classic calligraphic prowess, I’d rather he impress us with many more of his conceptual religious power-works which naturally come as second-nature to him (artistically, at least).
“There are so many concepts in Islam that I have yet to explore. I’m not done yet. I have no reason right now to move on to anything else,” Al Salem revealed.
For now, Nasser, you have provided us an art-ful of lessons that will linger not just for this month of Ramadan but for the remainder of the year. Hopefully.
The exhibition ‘And it remains…’ is currently running at Athr Gallery until Aug. 30th.
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