Unusual art exhibit from Saudi Arabia

Friday 30/10/2015
Shaweesh’s \'Iconoclasm\' water clay sculpture

LONDON - Forget about images of quaint mosques, pictur­esque sand dunes, palm trees and 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 “ricochet” was the central theme of a week-long exhi­bition in London’s Asia House that showcased the work of contempo­rary Saudi artists Abdulnasser Ghar­em, Shaweesh, Dhafer al-Shehri, Ajlan Gharem and Njoud al-Anbari. The artists investigated how actions taken by a country’s authorities can cause direct or indirect chain reac­tions.
The dedicated, unassuming cura­tor of Ricochet, who did not wish to be named, said he fell in love with the Abdulnasser Gharem’s art 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.
Ricochet, 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 that 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 Abdulnasser 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 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 people 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 and worked 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.
Abdulnasser 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 10×30 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 Arabia 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.