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

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

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.”


Timeless craft of cane carving sees Saudi statement pieces go global

Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
Updated 22 June 2021

Timeless craft of cane carving sees Saudi statement pieces go global

Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs such as swords, or canes. (Photos/Supplied)
  • Adel Al-Shehri turns handmade sidr pieces into online phenomenon using local talent, materials

MAKKAH: A young Saudi in the south of the Kingdom is bringing back the timeless craft of hand carving wooden canes with a new look to suit modern tastes, driving demand from Hajj pilgrims and online customers from around the world.

Walking canes have always been associated with the elderly and ill, and usually comprise simple designs that focus more on function rather than appearance.
That association has prompted Adel Al-Shehri to give the concept a new life by bringing back an old craft and turning canes into famous statement pieces used by Saudis.
Through his work, he can convey the cultural and historical essence of Saudi Arabia by engraving cultural designs on sidr wood.
Al-Shehri grew up in the southern mountain ranges of the Kingdom and uses the old indigenous tree to create unique intricately designed canes just as his forefathers once did.
The sidr tree, known as Christ’s thorn jujube, is an evergreen species that is a deep-rooted part of the culture. It can be used in medicine and also in the construction of canes and wooden objects found in many homes in the south of the Kingdom.

FASTFACT

The sidr tree, known as Christ’s thorn jujube, is an evergreen species that is a deep-rooted part of the culture. It can be used in medicine and also in the construction of canes and wooden objects found in many homes in the south of the Kingdom.

He told Arab News that he inherited from his ancestors a love of artifacts, such as shiny swords and jambiyas, a type of dagger with a curved blade. Growing up surrounded by architecture adorned in stones and wood, Al-Shehri said that he wanted to bring the rich history of design back using a product found right in his backyard.


“Visitors to Saudi Arabia are constantly on the hunt for souvenirs, swords, or canes. However, shipping swords is a real problem, because they are considered white weapons. Meanwhile, some items lose quality or are damaged during shipping. This is why I shifted my entire focus to making canes,” he added.
Al-Shehri said that while carrying out his Hajj pilgrimage, he used his cane as a “crutch,” engraving his name on it. Soon after, he decided to use the phrase “Made in Saudi Arabia” and focus on the Umrah and Hajj seasons to introduce the product as a souvenir that could be carried back home by pilgrims. Al-Shehri said that some Hajj institutions even reached out to give out his canes as gifts at the end of pilgrimage tours.

The canes I create are enough to stop importing canes that neither accentuate our identity nor highlight our intellectual and cultural message.

Adel Al-Shehri

He said that many people from across the world have requested their canes through Hajj institutions or on social media.
Most recently, he added, a German citizen requested four canes with different designs inspired by Saudi culture, but some customers request personalized canes or ones that are specifically customized to illustrate a memory.
Al-Shehri said that the canes he designs are delivered in handmade luxurious boxes that serve as a masterpiece to be displayed in a customer’s home. He described the cane as a “sign of prestige, warmth, and hospitality.”
The first thing that caught his attention as a child was how his family stores their ancient swords, guns, and jambiyas — all wrapped in ornate fabrics and stored in old boxes.

I inherited the love of artifacts from my ancestors.
Adel Al-Shehri

Al-Shehri had always wanted to put this heritage in the limelight and share it with other Saudi cities. The public’s broad praise of his initial work was the first building block in his dream toward producing his canes. He stressed that he often uses sidr wood for the canes because the diameter must be more than 40 centimeters.
For the wood fibers to grow, the sidr must also be dried for six months. “The handle is made from the core of sidr wood so that it could bear the grafting, which sometimes may reach a thousand grafts inside,” Al-Shehri said. With no educational experience, his drive to create such masterpieces taught him to push through and learn the craft with time and patience. “The manufacturing stages became an inspiration and taught me the ins and outs of this creative craftsmanship, which shaped the features of my personality and led me towards worlds of magic and beauty,” he said.
“I was first concerned with the metal lathe and mastering its unique way of manufacturing accessories and adding wood to them. I then focused on the element of touch and adding luster in the absence of real manufacturers in this field. I insisted on mastering the metal lathe myself so I would not have to depend on anyone else. My workshop, filled with nickel, chrome, stainless steel, and brass, along with the metal and wood lathes, became my best friend.
“I work for hours on end to meet the various requests, especially if a customer places an order for a special occasion with a tight deadline,” he added.
Al-Shehri said that what he and many other craftsmen in the Kingdom do promotes the Saudi culture and is a sign of pride in the Saudi identity. “The canes I create are enough to stop importing canes that neither accentuate our identity nor highlight our intellectual and cultural message.”


Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist

Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist
Updated 31 min 57 sec ago

Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist

Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist
  • Syrian artist Diala Brisly: “It’s very important to show solidarity among refugees”
  • “Courage is having fears, having all this worry, having all this trauma, and still having the energy to keep going”

LONDON: A refugee artist from Syria has created a unique piece of art that captures the spirit and courage of those fleeing war and poverty.
To mark World Refugee Day 2021, which was on Sunday, Diala Brisly created a mural with one key theme: The courage it takes to flee one’s home.
Commissioned by the International Rescue Committee, the piece depicts various people against a backdrop of a bombed city.
Now safe in France, Brisly said her work is about having the “energy to keep going through fear, trauma and upheaval.”
She added that the piece’s message — “refugees are courageous” — captures the essence of what it means to be forcibly uprooted.
“I really like the slogan because it shows strength, regardless of all the troubles that we’re going through,” she said.
The artwork depicts people of various ethnicities and identities, including children, and one man poignantly wearing a life jacket — a staple item of refugee migration across the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere.
“It’s very important to show solidarity among refugees. I believe in solidarity between all people. When we have this struggle in common, and we understand each other’s pain, we’re able to help each other because we share similar experiences,” said Brisly
“The media puts the spotlight on refugees when they’re in the middle of the sea. But it’s very important to understand that the crisis didn’t start in the Mediterranean, it started before,” she added.
“For me, courage is having fears, having all this worry, having all this trauma, and still having the energy to keep going.”
During the revolution against the Assad regime, journalists shared Brisly’s artwork to supplement their reports.
But this exposure, she said, put her life in danger. She fled Syria via Turkey and ended up in France.
Now she uses her talent to create moving works that support the causes she believes in, and runs art therapy workshops for children affected by war.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, nearly 82.4 million people were uprooted in 2020, fleeing war, violence, persecution and human rights abuses.


Nasana wooden dolls: Preserving Saudi heritage through artisanship

Nasana wooden dolls: Preserving Saudi heritage through artisanship
Saudi designer Malak Masallati chooses to preserve the traditional costumes of her country through a collection of wooden dolls called Nasana. (Supplied)
Updated 19 June 2021

Nasana wooden dolls: Preserving Saudi heritage through artisanship

Nasana wooden dolls: Preserving Saudi heritage through artisanship
  • The collection was launched in November 2020 and is currently on display at the Assila Hotel in Jeddah

JEDDAH: Every culture has a special way to tell the story of its people. Saudi designer Malak Masallati chooses to preserve the traditional costumes of her country through a collection of wooden dolls called Nasana (which translates to “our people”).
“Nasana is there to highlight the diverse individuals of Saudi Arabia, with their different backgrounds, ages, stories, traditions, and customs,” Masallati told Arab News, adding that it also reflects the pride Saudis feel for their Kingdom.
The collection was launched in November 2020 and is currently on display at the Assila Hotel in Jeddah. It has previously been exhibited at Shara Art Fair by the Saudi Art Council.

Saudi designer Malak Masallati chooses to preserve the traditional costumes of her country through a collection of wooden dolls called Nasana. (Supplied)

It consists of 15 dolls, each representing a different region of Saudi Arabia. Each character has a name inspired by traditional names from each region, including Saud, Al-Joharah, Nourah, Sitah, Abdulaziz, Itra, Hajjar, Zahra, Haylah, Obaid, Saeed, Amnah, Fatou, Fouad, and Shifa.
“I believe that Saudi Arabia has a vast heritage yet to be discovered (by many). The younger generation possesses the knowledge and creativity that is required to (promote that heritage),” she said, citing the Saudi fashion brand Sleysla, with whom she has previously worked, as a good example.

HIGHLIGHTS

• ‘Nasana’ is a collection of 15 hand-painted wooden dolls representing the traditional costumes of different regions of Saudi Arabia.

• The collection is currently on display in Jeddah and the dolls are also available to buy.

• Most of the collection’s costumes are based on information found in the book ‘Traditional Costumes of Saudi Arabia’ by The Mansoojat Foundation.

Masallati, who has more than 15 years of experience in interior design and residential renovation, is the founder of Dar Malak, a makers’ space in Jeddah dedicated to producing other unique Saudi products. The Nasana collection was itself produced there. The dolls are hand-painted by emerging artists from different Saudi communities working in Dar Malak.
“The collection went through a long design process, trying different techniques with various materials such as paint, gesso, as well as gold and silver leafing,” Masallati explained.
The dolls are based on research carried out online and in the field. “(We) captured stories and researched the facts,” Masallati said. “We traveled to most of these areas and incorporated details we found in Abdul Raouf Khalil Museum in Jeddah, where they showcase beautiful traditional costumes.”
She also mentioned that “Traditional Costumes of Saudi Arabia” — a book produced by the Mansoojat Foundation Collection, a charity dedicated to the preservation of ethnic textiles and designs — was of invaluable assistance to the project.
The Nasana dolls — some of which stand 59 centimeters tall — are also on sale for between SR9,000 and SR11,000 ($2,400-2,933).
Masallati said she and her team intend to expand the collection in the future, and to work with art college graduates. They will also produce a new collection this year, she said.

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International Sushi Day: Delicious spots to try in Saudi Arabia

International Sushi Day: Delicious spots to try in Saudi Arabia
Updated 18 June 2021

International Sushi Day: Delicious spots to try in Saudi Arabia

International Sushi Day: Delicious spots to try in Saudi Arabia

In honor of International Sushi Day celebrated on June 18, here are six sushi spots to try in Saudi Arabia, rounded up by Arab News Japan.  

Chez Sushi

This modern and casual restaurant on Prince Saud Al-Faisal Road in Jeddah feature custom dishes such as a Japanese burrito and attractive lunch offers.

Oishii Sushi

Owner Khulood Olaqi turned this home-based online store into a fully-fledged restaurant where she is both a chef and manager. Cozy, warm and welcoming, Oishii Sushi is located in Riyadh.

Sushi Centro

Promising sushi that is “rolled to perfection,” the restaurant also provides traditional Japanese food that is rich in flavor and flair. Sushi Centro has two branches in Saudi Arabia, one in Jeddah in Centro Shaheen Hotel, and the other in Riyadh’s Centro Waha Hotel.

Nozomi

Nozomi’s menu is internationally renowned and award-winning, offering an unrivaled fine-dining experience on Riyadh’s Dabab Street.

Wakame

A hip restaurant that plays host to business meetings, gossip and fast-paced service at a dimly lit sushi bar, Wakame has three branches in Jeddah: In Ar Rawdah district, in Obhur and on Al-Malik Road.

Sushi Yoshi

A franchise with branches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Alkhobar where guests can enjoy anime with their sushi. 


Arab filmmakers Kaouther Ben Hania, Sameh Alaa join Cannes’ short film jury

Arab filmmakers Kaouther Ben Hania, Sameh Alaa join Cannes’ short film jury
Updated 18 June 2021

Arab filmmakers Kaouther Ben Hania, Sameh Alaa join Cannes’ short film jury

Arab filmmakers Kaouther Ben Hania, Sameh Alaa join Cannes’ short film jury

DUBAI: The Cannes Film Festival announced this week that Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania and Egyptian director Sameh Alaa will be part of the short film jury at the 74th edition of the event next month.

Other jury members include filmmakers Tuva Novotny from Sweden, Spain’s Carlos Muguiro, screenwriter Alice Winocour, and actor Nicolas Pariser, both from France.

Alaa’s movie, “I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face,” won the coveted Palme d’Or in the Cannes Film Festival’s short-film competition in October. (Supplied)

For this year’s festival, which runs from July 16 to 17, the selection committee has viewed 3,739 short films. The jury will be awarding one of the 10 movies selected for the competition, including flicks from Brazil, Denmark, China, France, Hong Kong, and Portugal.

Ben Hania has been making headlines in the film industry after her critically acclaimed movie, “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” was shortlisted for the Oscar’s international feature film award in February.

Meanwhile, Alaa’s movie, “I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face,” won the coveted Palme d’Or in the Cannes Film Festival’s short-film competition in October.