Cultural exchange

What it was like as a Saudi artist, working in the US during the travel ban


Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine, 23 January 2017

I had been in Lewiston for my residency (part of the exhibition Phantom Punch, supported by the Bates College Museum of Art and the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture) for five days, setting up the studio in the city centre on Lisbon Street. At 8am, the museum’s director, Dan Mills, arrived to accompany me to the college cafeteria and after a light meal I went to the studio to finish the preparations for the performance that evening.

Sometime in the afternoon I stepped out of the studio and onto the street and a man who looked poor and was wearing shabby clothes asked me a question.

“Do you know Jesus?”

I answered “No” and continued, “Who is Jesus?”

He said, “Jesus will help you.”

“Do I look as though I need help? I think you’re the one who needs help,” I said, and handed him a cigarette from my pocket.

He took the cigarette, lit it and said, “Everyone needs Jesus’s help, and you need it too but you just don’t know it.”

He finished his cigarette and said, “God bless you” and walked off.

I went back to the studio to finish the preparations.

By 6pm, people gradually started to arrive and the place soon filled up. I started the show by performing the first two works, Ethics and Justice, live in front of the audience. Afterwards, the audience showered me with questions, which I was not used to in my performances, and the people responded to me in a new way.

Nugamshi performing at the opening of his exhibition Phantom Punch

The concept behind the exhibition was to show a performance live in the artist’s own environment. It was a nice idea that reflected an atmosphere and experience worthy of debate, around the creation and execution of works.

The day ended with a light dinner with some of the audience members and the atmosphere was lovely, full of conversation and laughter.

In my research as an artist, I always try to express my work as a Saudi, an Arab, and a citizen of the world. My thinking begins with the issues that I see in my own country and ends with a message in the Arabic tongue, addressed to the whole world: الأخلاق، العدل، العلم، الجمال. [morality, justice, science, beauty].

JFK Airport, New York to King Khalid Airport, Riyadh, 2 February 2017

I was on my way back to Saudi Arabia. I had not previously considered the issue of belonging to a particular place or time as something that interests me. I think that every place that I belong to is part of who I am as a person.

A few days ago I felt sad and disappointed by the decision to deny some of my brothers from other Arab countries entry into America.

America is a country that brings together the world in all its diversity, and that diversity is rich and beautiful like a garden that brings together all kinds of flowers.

At the same time I loved the reaction of the American people challenging Trump’s decision, which is something that bodes well for peace.

This world needs nothing but peace for a dignified life, preserving the right to morality and justice.