Leading Saudi soldier-artist sets up peacemaking art foundation
“People will see the artist as negotiating their issues; they will be involved, they will not just come to watch,” says Abdulnasser Gharem
By Anna Somers Cocks. Web only
Published online: 01 July 2013
Abdulnasser Gharem, 40, is a gentle, thoughtful colonel in the Saudi army—not a pen-pusher, though; he has seen action twice—who came to the West’s attention during the Venice Biennale of 2009, where the artists’ collective Edge of Arabia, of which he is co-founder, showed his hauntingly beautiful video, Al Siraat.
Since then he has gone on to become known as one of the leading exponents of Middle Eastern conceptualism and the highest selling Arab contemporary artist, when his Message/Messenger sold for $842,500 (with buyer's premium) at Christie’s Dubai in 2011. It is a gleaming cupola of the Dome of the Rock poised precariously over a small dove, the classic emblem of peace, at risk of being trapped beneath this symbol of all the religious fervour and tension of the region.
Straight away, Gharem showed that he was not interested in becoming part of the market hooplah by donating the money to Edge of Arabia to help art education in Saudi Arabia, and he has gone further with his contribution to this year’s Venice Biennale, which is the plan to set up an artist-run foundation in Riyadh, the deeply conservative capital, to which he has given the ecumenical name “Amen” (so be it).
One of the most inspiring and exciting developments of the last ten years has been the emergence of brave and sophisticated visual art from Saudi Arabia, truly the Empty Quarter so far as contemporary art was concerned until then. It has developed largely outside the art system and is distinct from Western art in that it is about things, problems and ideas rooted in a very different culture, but similar in that it lives up to contemporary art’s declared vocation to question and criticise, often much more flaccidly expressed in Western art nowadays.
The Amen Foundation is being presented at part of “Rhizoma”, an exhibition of Middle Eastern artists that is one of the collateral events of the Biennale (Magazzini del Sale, Dorsoduro, Venice, until 24 September).
Anna Somers Cocks: Tell me about this Amen Foundation that you are creating.
Abdulnasser Gharem: I’m treating the Amen Foundation as if I were producing a work of art. Why should a work of art only be a painting or an installation? It can be an organisation where people come and learn and produce art.
ASC: Why do you call it the Amen Foundation?
AG: The good thing about the word “amen” is that you find it in Islam, in Judaism, in Christianity. Lately, the king [Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia] has been trying to encourage that kind of dialogue between religions, so I thought, if the king wants this dialogue, I will try to handle the cultural or artistic side of this mission of my country.
ASC: Where will your foundation be based?
AG: Most people have said go to Jeddah, it’s more open. But Riyadh is the capital. I should go where the power is, where the conservative forces are. I learned this from being in the army.
ASC: How will it work?
AG: After talking with a Berlin art consultant, I think that the whole idea of the programme should come from the people. I need a residency, a library, an artists’ studios, a small café, an archive. We want fresh ideas from the people.
ASC: Do you think that the fact that some of the royal family is open to art helps the art scene in Saudi Arabia?
AG: They say, “Yes, we need it; we will help.” Actually, what I need from them in the beginning is for them to protect me from that tough ideology in Riyadh. There are 200,000 [Saudi] students in the US. Imagine what will happen to the the country when they return? I’m an artist. I want to prepare something, so when they come, they’ll find the foundation. It will educate even their parents; it will help the whole of society.
ASC: Ten years ago there almost was no art in Saudi Arabia but now it’s as though the desert had begun to gush water. What’s happened?
AG: I think the internet is the main reason. It has been the best source of knowledge, with no censorship. When it arrived we were like crazy, sitting in front of the monitor for eight hours just to see what a museum is, an art fair, who’s Marcel Duchamp, who’s Picasso, who’s Rembrandt. We were also searching in science and the other religions, because it had been prohibited to know about the other religions.
There have also been a lot of wars in the region over the last ten years, and with wars, people get changed, as after the First World War, when a lot of art movements such as Dadaism emerged, and the conceptual art that came after the Second World War. In the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, we have had the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the Iraq War, the Yemen War, and what’s happening now in the region with the Arab Spring. This will change everything and it will affect the art itself. It will affect the artists and even the people, and lead them to start to accept and search for a new platform for new ideas. They will see the artist as negotiating their issues. They will be involved, they will not just come to watch.
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