Saudi artists bring fresh perspective to London exhibition

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Updated 10 February 2016

Saudi artists bring fresh perspective to London exhibition

People are sitting in a little room watching some films; for many of the viewers what they are seeing is quite a revelation. The highly creative short videos show a picture of the Gulf from a thought-provoking, fantastical and often very funny perspective. A message that shines through from a film called Pixels is how prejudice is universal and how doors can be slammed in the face of anyone whose appearance or views do not conform to mainstream norms. The films are enjoyable to watch because they hold up a mirror to the frailties and conceits of our shared humanity.
The makeshift cinema is in the Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London. The films being screened are part of an exhibition called ‘In Search of Lost Time’ presented in association with the Brunei Gallery by the British Council and curated by Abed Al-Kadiri, Amal Khalaf and Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem. The exhibition is the culmination of four years of cultural exchange between artists in the UK and the Gulf.
The leading Saudi contemporary artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, founder of Gharem Studio, Riyadh, curated the Gharem Studio Installation for the exhibition.
Arab News caught up with Gharem at the private preview. He spoke about his pleasure in working with talented young artists at his Studio and the vision behind his own work.
“My inspiration comes from my daily life — what is happening around me. That includes the wars in the region and the ideologies promoted by people who are just repeating what they learn without thinking. Some of these people have become like ‘Guards of the Idea’ — they are just guarding the idea. They are killing creativity and avoiding any new speech or any new ideas. I think art is the only way you can spread new ideas from a humanitarian perspective,” he said.
With regard to the collaboration with the British Council he commented: “One of the missions of the British Council is to promote culture, and it is an honor to work with this organization.”
Gharem is passionate about developing young, upcoming talent and hopes one day to set up a foundation in Saudi Arabia.
“They (the artists) are smart and have a passion for what they do. It is my dream to create a foundation and become a model for others across Saudi Arabia. Now, for an artist to create his own studio is a new thing. Usually, in the past, the artist was self-sufficient. I am enjoying my studio working with these young, smart kids — exchanging ideas. I am learning from them also.”
He is generous with his time and resources and sees it as important to support the next generation of artists.
“My Ghrarem Studio in Riyadh is non-profit. Not everything should be for profit; you need to donate at least some of your time and some of your efforts to others. I put the artists together so they can produce ideas together — we don’t know who the ideas belong to because there are a lot of people working on the ideas. They work collaboratively,” he explained.
Present at the exhibition showing his work ‘Paradise has many gates’ was Ajlan Gharem. He built an art installation in the shape of a mosque in the desert outside Riyadh and told a story through film and photographs. He said that he wanted to show how in a fast changing society a gulf has developed between the older generations who follow certain traditions and beliefs unquestioningly and the younger generations, who with their exposure to so much new information and knowledge, want to sift through, examine and evaluate ideas and beliefs.
“As the younger generation, when we look at the older generation — they had more beliefs than knowledge. Today, we young people have more knowledge than beliefs. We are still looking for our beliefs. We are stuck in the traditional mentality whereby you have to believe in everything without searching. It is totally different now — with the Internet everything is available. So that is what is in my mind — we are in a cage but we can see out. You need beliefs, but if you want to build a new future you have to build a new past. You have to search the past and then build a new future,” he said.
Director of SOAS, Baroness Amos, spoke to Arab News about her perspective on the exhibition. “This exhibition is really multi-media — a lot of different artists from different parts of the Gulf region have contributed. It is about finding a way of bringing together a whole range of talent and messages from different voices about what is going on in the region.
“We are a university with a particular specialism in the Middle East, Africa and Asia that prides itself on being global. We are thinking about the issues that are currently facing the world; our students come to SOAS because they want to challenge conventional thinking — they want to change the world,” she said.
Sean Williams, Director of Operations for the Arts in the UK, British Council, explained that the exhibition is the culmination of several years of collaborative art projects and programs throughout the Gulf region.
He observed: “We see so much negative press about the Arab world and Islam but the day to day experience is not about that; one of the safe spaces and areas where people feel more comfortable about having a conversation where they feel more open is in the cultural area. Hopefully, we can challenge some of the stereotypical views that many people have about the Arab world and particularly the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.”
The artworks in the exhibition cover a time span from the 60s to the present day. The earliest work on show is Sami Mohammad’s 1966 bronze sculpture ‘Water Carrier’. The sculpture of a pregnant woman with her face covered by a niqab and her body with an abaya addresses a period in Kuwait’s history before the discovery of oil. While it represents the suffering women went through while their husbands were away at sea, the figure of the expectant woman also anticipates change.
Raja’a Khalid’s Fortune/Golf, Desert Golf I, III, IV, a series of found images, examines the introduction of golf in the Middle East. A description from the back of a press photograph of a desert golf course reads: ‘These desert divot diggers are playing on a golf course built by the Arabian American Oil Co. for its employees. The players use red balls which stand out against the blankness of the sand fairways and the blackness of the greens. There is no roll on the sand.’
Lantian Xie, an artist based in Dubai, explores through his video installation the complex relationship that some non-UAE nationals have with their adopted country where they are not citizens and have the feeling of being guests beholden to their host. The video is an excerpt taken from the film ‘Days of being Wild’ by Hong Kong filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai. The soundtrack is the Hardees/KFC home-delivery hotline holding music. We see a young man dancing alone in his apartment and get a glimpse of the private loneliness and vulnerability of people who are somehow culturally lost.
Curator Amal Khalaf spoke about the way new media is changing the way young people view art. With reference to the innovative short films being shown she said: “The cinema in this exhibition deserves its own space. Humor is so important, especially in the Gulf, because we are in a space where we not only have restrictions from the government but in society there are many taboos of what we can say and what we cannot say. The younger generation is able to cut through those taboos. They communicate not in exhibition spaces but through YouTube and on phones. My Dad, who is 65, watches the videos; videos produced by 19-year-olds in Saudi.”
“Look at the power that this kind of art form has; it doesn’t need the walls of a gallery — it doesn’t need to come to London to be important. It’s global and it really reaches people. There is something about these videos that I can just see on my Instagram that is challenging everything about how you make images and how you make social commentary today in the region. “
Speaking of the theme for the exhibition which is based on the idea of speed and movement and time and how different people in the Gulf deal with this movement, she observed: “How do you describe a place that has transformed so quickly in just a few decades? I was born in the 80s and the place I come from, Bahrain, is almost unrecognizable — culturally and in so many ways.
“The title for the exhibition comes from volumes by Marcel Proust which talk philosophically about the idea of nostalgia. But we wanted to step away from this idea of nostalgia which is so often characterized by descriptions of the Gulf from the pre-oil era to hyper contemporary cities of glass in the desert. We want to bring to London works that interrogate this movement through time in a different way.”
In Search of Lost Time, Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London runs from Jan. 21 to March 19, 2016.

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Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

‘People aren’t born hard and aggressive,’ says Jolie. ‘Something happens and you don’t feel safe.’ (Supplied)
Updated 21 October 2019

Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

LOS ANGELES: No one is born the villain. Not Lucifer in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, not Arthur Fleck in Todd Philips’ recent release “Joker,” and certainly not Maleficent, whom Angelina Jolie brought to life in 2014. Unlike “Joker,” however, “Maleficent,” a reimagining of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), was an open-hearted film, showing not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more.

“We think of her as evil and dark, and we asked why, and went deeper,” says Jolie of the character. “Most women — most people — aren’t born with a certain hardness and aggression; something happens in your life where you lose trust, you don’t feel safe, and you start to fight and you protect yourself in a different way.”

“Maleficent” shows not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more. (Supplied)

In “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel set six years later, Maleficent hardly lives up to that title, but rumor would have it otherwise. The story of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora (Elle Fanning) has spread across the land, painting Maleficent as the villain, rather than the one whose love saved her. Now, as Aurora plans to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world.

“When you see a leader like (Ingrith), who is so angry, so hostile, and who believes that the only way to survive is to destroy the other… we make it very clear in this film that she’s afraid, she’s weak and she’s ignorant. That’s why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s wrong,” Jolie says. “It’s not political, it’s not trying to be, but if you’re happy about the way the film ends, and it feels right, I think that heads you in the right direction, and for children it gives a nice guide.”

In the film, Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world. (Supplied)

While the film features a lot of violent spectacle, the inner conflict of the lead characters themselves is whether they are strong enough to resist becoming violent, rather than the inverse.

“That’s something that isn’t portrayed a lot on screen — a lot of princesses grew up and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her a strong princess, and we’re going to make her tough, so we’re going to make her fight!’ Is that what being a strong woman means? We’re going to have to have a sword and armor on and fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress. It’s beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities as her strengths,” says Fanning.

Redefining the ‘strong woman’ character is not just about redefining strength, for Jolie. It’s about lifting women up without pushing men down.

Harris Dickinson plays Prince Phillip in Disney's live-action “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

“We show diverse types of women, but we have extraordinary men in the film,” she says. “I really want to press that point, because I think so often when a story is told of a ‘strong woman’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man. We both very much need and love and learn from the men. I think that’s also an important message for young girls — to find their own power, but to learn from and respect the men around them.”

For Maleficent, those men include Conall and Borra (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein respectively), both of whom are of the same race as her, cast out from the rest of the world. The two play out the conflict at the center of the film — whether the only path to peace is conflict, or whether diplomacy and goodwill can help.

Elle Fanning plays Aurora in “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” says he was captivated by the film’s themes.

“It was an interesting conversation about leadership — what self-sacrifice means in terms of leadership — and has a real engagement with optimism and positivity in terms of leadership and what is beneficial to most people, and what part leadership plays in that. I felt there was something very rich in the script,” he says.

Even Prince Philip was built to break stereotypes and challenge perspectives, according to Dickinson.

Angelina Jolie brought Maleficent to life in 2014. (Supplied)

“I saw him as this young man trying to figure out how to find his voice and challenge the perspectives of his parents and rule in a more inclusive way,” he says. “(Director Joachim Rønning) and I spoke about him as not just the archetype of a Disney prince who comes along and saves the day.”

While Skrein’s Borra at first seems to be the cliched hawkish brute, he too turns out to be more openminded than he appears.

“The love and understanding of Conall’s message really resonated more, and we do see Borra go on a real arc or journey of his moral stance,” Skrein says. “I think that comes from Conall and that’s why we have to try and preach empathy and peace over violence as much as we can.”