Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 30th October 2015

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Unusual art exhibit from Saudi Arabia

Saudi contemporary young artists specialise in controversial, thought-provoking, unique photographs, sculptures, and art installations.


Shaweesh: Iconoclasm

Shaweesh’s ‘Iconoclasm’ water clay sculpture

Forget about images of quaint mosques, picturesque sand dunes, palm trees and gentile Arabs in traditional costumes: Saudi Arabia’s contemporary young artists specialise in controversial, thought provoking, unique photographs, sculptures, video art and installations.

The concept of “richochet” was the central theme of a week-long exhibition in London’s Asia House which showcased the work of five contemporary Saudi artists: Abdulnasser Gharem, Shaweesh, Dhafer al-Shehri, Ajlan Gharem and Njoud al-Anbari. The artists investigated how the actions taken by a country’s authorities can cause direct or indirect chain reactions.

The dedicated, unassuming curator of Richochet, who did not wish to be named, fell in love with the art of Abdulasser Gharem and organised the London exhibition which he sees as the first step to introducing Saudi artists to Europe.

“They are a voice from inside the kingdom which needs to be heard,” he said.

Richochet, the massive digital print and industrial lacquer paint on aluminium work by Abdulnasser Gharem from which the exhibition takes its name, features an image of a richly ornamented mosque ceiling slowly and shockingly metamorphosing into an armed fighter jet which resembles a malevolent insect. The message is that religion can be used as pretext for war but the beauty of the Islamic design prevails suggesting that war is transient and ultimately peace and unity will prevail.

Aniconism is a 5-minute video by Gharem showing Saudi artists in traditional dress using a plastic model of naked woman for an art drawing class. Gharem took the mannequin from Dubai earlier in 2015. It was dismantled and the pieces were transported into Saudi Arabia in different cars as all depictions of naked women, even in the form of mannequins, are forbidden. The video shows the will of artists to overcome barriers and engage with aesthetics at the core of art history.

The artists taking part in the exhibition were nurtured by Gharem Studio (GS) in Riyadh, established in 2010 to teach the young generation aged 18-25 about contemporary art. Due to an absence of art schools in the country, the studio is one of the only places in Saudi Arabia where artists can talk freely and learn about contemporary art.

The studio has staged exhibitions at the US ambassador’s residence in Riyadh, as well as working closely with The British Council on a series of workshops with Professor David Rayson, Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art in London.

Abdulasser Gharem, one of the Gulf’s most influential artists, was a lieutenant-colonel in the Saudi army. Two of the 9/11 hijackers were in his class at school. He says the only way to conquer the wave of terrorism sweeping the Middle East, and with it the world, is to encourage people to think individually.

“My idea is to help them find their path and not introduce themselves as a sacrifice in jihad,” he said. “I want them to look around and develop their humanity.”

On his part, Ajlan Gharem, a maths teacher in Riyadh and co-founder of GS, exhibited Paradise Has Many Gates, a video documenting the installation of a 10x30 cm cage transformed into the shape of a mosque and installed in the desert outside Riyadh.

There are images of figures coming to pray in the mosque, including children who ask many questions and raise issues about identity and the desire to break free from the shackles imposed by tradition.

Tradition is also challenged by Shaweesh in Iconoclasm a water clay sculpture of the bust of a sheikh and Anbari an interior designer hired by the Saudi government to restructure all-girls schools.

A C4 plastic explosive is attached to the bust of the sheikh in classical Roman style, drawing attention to some Muslims who use religion to propagate messages of hatred. But the serene expression on the sheikh’s face forces those looking at the sculpture to conclude that peace will prevail.

In her video and pigment print on photo rag paper, Anbari reflects the interaction between visually starved children and a typical display of cautionary art that is unique to Saudi and common in educational settings.

In a series of untitled works, all pigment print on photo rag paper, Shehri creates a collage of crowd-reverent pilgrims, overconfident football fans and bare graves. These images illustrate how collective cultures can cause the value of an individual to be compromised.

Proud of his studio’s first international exhibition Abdulnasser Gharem speaks eloquently about his aim: “I don’t just want to create artists, I want to create real players who are good at everything, working with society, and also successful in the art market.”

When Christie’s Dubai sold his sculptural installation Message/Messenger symbolising the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem for $842,500 in 2011, a record-breaking price for contemporary Middle Eastern art, he donated the money to Edge of Arabia, a gallery in south-western London that he helped set up.

The gallery has since become an internationally recognised platform for dialogue and exchange between the Middle East and the Western world.