Fine Art
1:04 am
Fri November 8, 2013

Saudi Soldier Questions Authority With Art (And Plastic Wrap)

Originally published on Fri November 8, 2013 8:17 am

Abdulnasser Gharem is a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Saudi Arabian Armed Forces, a man who's served in his country's military for more than two decades. But Gharem's true passion lies in a decidedly less rigid field — contemporary art.

His paintings, performances and installations, which have transformed the Saudi art scene, challenge people to question the same authority he upholds in his day job. Because of his artistic critique of the Saudi government, Gharem is careful about which works he shows in his home country, and which he saves for exhibits outside its borders. He hosted his first major solo exhibition in London this past month.

Gharem, who co-founded an art collective called Edge of Arabia to bring Arab art to the rest of the world, spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne about the difficulty of using images to reach an audience steeped in a text-oriented culture.


Interview Highlights

On discovering his passion for art

I start to read about the museum, about art fairs, about the other artists' lives — you know, the things I was missing, I find it. So when [the] Internet just came, it really changed my life.

On a famous 2007 performance in his home city that involved wrapping himself and a tree in plastic

I said, OK, there is no gallery and there is no museum, so why should I wait for them? Why don't I just go to the main street of my city and just do the performance? Just go and connect with a real audience. So I just went to the main street, and I start to talk to the people, and ... I wrapped myself with that tree.

The government brought that tree from Australia, and it was affecting the native trees. So I start to do that performance to show the people that thing is affecting all of us. So, immediately, they get engaged with me, they start — you know, they thought I'm crazy in the beginning.

But when I start to tell them about the story, and the people start to complain about that tree, and the people start to talk, I realize that's the spark. And that's what encouraged me to keep doing these kind of things, until now.

On his larger-than-life replicas of stamps that are used for actual documents

I'm part of the system, you know. And I'm using that stamp in my daily job, and I know how powerful is that stamp in our lives, if you know what they mean. So that stamp is the symbol of bureaucracy, yeah. When you have a baby, you should stamp that you have the baby. When you go into marriage you should have stamps. Even if you need a vacation you need that kind of stamp. So I think that's what's killing the dreams of the youth here.

There is a big, huge gap between the young generation and the elderly, now. And I think the bureaucracy is one of the most important reasons who create that huge gap between the two generations. So I'm putting that as an artwork which will become a kind of platform where the people can come and start to talk about it again.

On a work that addresses his connection to the Sept. 11 attacks

That painting, I call it "Pause" because it's related to 9/11. You know, in that moment, I think the whole world were like someone pushed that button: pause. And the 19 who were in the airplane, most of them are from Saudi Arabia, and two of them, I was studying with them. They were with me in the same schools. ... They were with me in the high schools, and I was wondering why did they choose this path while we have the same knowledge. We were in the same school, we were sitting next together, and I don't know why did they choose that path. It was a crazy thing, to be honest.

On the prospect of censorship in his home country

To be honest, [I'm] not [censored] yet, but I'm trying to be careful with these things. You know, with the social media, I think no one now can block anyone or not letting anyone to show what he want. But I'm a little bit worried. I can't do that sort of show — the one I just did in London — in Saudi Arabia. I think it would not be allowed, to be honest.

On Saudi audiences' reactions to his work

When I started doing my artworks in the beginning, it was a little bit tough. I'm coming from a text culture — I mean, my culture is based on a text [the Quran] and it's hard, it's a little bit hard for someone like me came from this kind of references, and I want to change that text culture to a visual thing, because the people here they didn't used to the visual or to the images because it was prohibited. ...

You know, I have another work, I call it "The Path." It's a short movie with some photographs. It's another performance. It's hard. The people — it was hard for them to accept it, because you are changing something from text to a visual thing. And they said, "How could you do that?"

But now ... the people here in Saudi Arabia, I mean, a lot of audience are asking me, after they saw the show in London, they are asking me to do a show in Saudi Arabia. And that's what I was waiting for. And I think I'm going to show some of the artworks, and I will keep developing this, and I will keep encouraging the people to understand what I'm trying to say. I think it's a little bit hard mission, but I should do it.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The ancient Bedouin culture of Saudi Arabia has produced exquisite textiles and jewelry and copper work. Edgy, challenging modern art with multiple layers of meaning - not so much.

LT. COL. ABDULNASSER GHAREM: The problem is in my society, they weren't interested in art - if you know what I mean. Art was something, they call it haram, which means it's prohibited.

MONTAGNE: That is Abdulnasser Gharem, a leader of a daring group of artists creating an art scene in Saudi Arabia. Gharem's own work is conceptual. He plays with ideas about tradition, authority, the lessons of Islam, and a post 9/11 world.

Gharem currently has a major solo exhibition in London. He spoke with us from the offices of an art-video collective in Riyadh, something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago in conservative Saudi Arabia.

GHAREM: There was no theater. There was no museum here. There was no cinema. There was no galleries. There was no even books about art.

MONTAGNE: And there would have been no way for a school boy with a talent for drawing to aspire to a life as an artist. Instead, Abdulnasser Gharem joined the Saudi Army. Now a lieutenant colonel, he was a young officer when he discovered an entire world of art on the Internet.

GHAREM: I start to read about the museum, about art fairs, about the other artists' life - you know, the things I was missing, I find it. So when that Internet just came, it really changed my life.

MONTAGNE: You have quite a legendary piece of performance art that you did, conceptual art, a few years ago. You stood on a city street and wrapped yourself, standing under a tree, in plastic. What did people think walking by?

(LAUGHTER)

GHAREM: I did that in around 2007. I said, OK, while there is no gallery and there is no museum, so why should I wait for them? Why don't I just go to the main street of my city and just do the performance? So I just went to the main street and, as you said, I wrapped myself with that tree. The government brought that tree from Australia, and it was affecting the native trees. So I start to do that performance to show the people that thing is affecting all of us. Immediately, they get engaged with me.

You know, they thought I'm crazy in the beginning. But when I start to tell them about the story and the people start to complain about that tree, and the people start to talk, I realized that's the spark and that's what encouraged me to keep doing these kind of things, until now.

MONTAGNE: Something else you're well-known for are these huge versions of stamps that would be used in real life to stamp documents. From where you're coming from, what were you working with, in your mind?

GHAREM: You know, I'm part of the system. You know, and I'm using that stamp, you know, in my daily job, and I know how powerful is that stamp in our lives. So that stamp is the symbol of bureaucracy, yeah. When you have a baby, you should stamp that you have the baby. When you go to marriage you should have stamps. Even if you need a vacation you need that kind of stamp. So I think that's what's killing the dreams of the youth here.

There is a big, huge gap between the young generation and the elderly now. And I think the bureaucracy is one of the most important reasons who create that huge gap between the two generations. So I'm putting that as an artwork which will become a kind of platform where the people can come and start to talk about it again, you know.

MONTAGNE: Abdulnasser Gharem says his aim is to get people talking and thinking. One of his installations is huge replica of the U.S. Capitol Dome resting on a glossy black surface. A comment on America's thirst for oil? Maybe. But the interior of the dome resembles a mosque. That raises questions about the relationship between Islam and democracy and how they might or might not fit together.

Then there is one of Gharem's paintings. It is a minimalist work featuring the bare outlines of an airplane passing through one of two tall gray rectangles easily interpreted as the World Trade Center towers. Gharem calls it "Pause."

GHAREM: That painting I call it "Pause" because it's related to 9/11. You know, in that moment, the whole world were like someone pushed that button: pause. And the 19 who were in the airplane, most of them are from Saudi Arabia, and two of them, I was studying with them. They were with me in the same schools.

MONTAGNE: You studied as a student - a young student - with two of the hijackers.

GHAREM: Yeah. They were with me in the high schools, and I was wondering why did they choose this path while we have the same knowledge. We were in the same school, we were sitting next together, and I don't know why did they choose that path. It was a crazy thing, to be honest.

MONTAGNE: Is that a problem with you, to display this work in Saudi Arabia? Are you censored?

GHAREM: You know, to be honest, not yet, but I'm trying to be careful, you know, with these things. You know, with the social media, I think no one now can block anyone or not letting anyone to show what you want. But I'm a little bit worried. I can't do that sort of show - the one I just did in London - in Saudi Arabia. I think it would not be allowed, to be honest.

MONTAGNE: How do people inside Saudi Arabia react to your work?

GHAREM: You know, when I started doing my artworks in the beginning, it was a little bit tough. I mean, you know, I'm coming from a text culture - I mean, my culture is based on a text...

MONTAGNE: The Quran.

GHAREM: Yeah. Exactly. And I want to change the text culture to a visual thing, because the people here they didn't used to the visual, you know, or to the images and they said, how could you do that?

But now, I think now, the people here are asking me to do a show in Saudi Arabia, and that's what I was waiting for. And I think I'm going to show some of the artworks, and I will keep developing this, and I will keep encouraging the people to understand what I'm trying to say. I think it's a little bit hard mission, but I should do it. That's one of my missions.

MONTAGNE: Well, good luck to you and thank you very much for joining us.

GHAREM: You're welcome. Thank you, ma'am.

MONTAGNE: Abdulnasser Gharem spoke to us from an art collective in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.