A New Generation Of Saudi Artists Pushes The Boundaries

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Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem poses in front of "Generation Kill," a piece made with rubber stamps, digital print and paint, at the opening night of his exhibition titled Al Sahwa (The Awakening) at Ayyam gallery in Dubai in 2014. (AP)
Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem poses in front of "Generation Kill," a piece made with rubber stamps, digital print and paint, at the opening night of his exhibition titled Al Sahwa (The Awakening) at Ayyam gallery in Dubai in 2014. (AP)

Abdulnasser Gharem doesn't have the background you might expect for a successful artist – let alone one famous for edgy work from Saudi Arabia. He was once a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army. He went to high school with two of the 9/11 hijackers.

But his first major art work sold for a whopping $842,500 at a Christie's auction in Dubai. It's a glittering dome symbolizing the Dome of the Rock, set on its edge, capturing a dove.

In Saudi Arabia, a new generation of artists is pushing boundaries amid a growing art scene. Art galleries and daring visual artists, all unheard of just a few years ago, are thriving. Contemporary artists like Gharem have become a critical voice in the conservative kingdom, where open calls for reform are a criminal offense.

Gharem says he doesn't care about fame. "I must focus on my own mission," he says with an exasperated laugh at the suggestion that he is the highest selling artist in the region. "I want to play my own role in the society, which will make me happy, and I can see the result."

In his busy Riyadh workshop, musicians play traditional music in the kitchen; a photographer is arranging images on a white wall in the next room. Here, Gharem, 41, gives young artists the help and guidance he never got.

The work of Saudi artist Njoud Alanbari focuses on issues surrounding female education.
The work of Saudi artist Njoud Alanbari focuses on issues surrounding female education.

"When I was struggling as a kid, I want[ed] to see the museum, I want to see the real paintings, I want to talk to the artists, how they are thinking," he says.

The Internet opened him to the larger art world as a young artist. He started an art foundation in 2013 with the money he earned from his first sale. Gharem took more than a dozen young artists to London last year to display their work, and this year, he and a group of young Saudi artists will launch an art tour across the U.S.

There is plenty of talent in Saudi Arabia, he says. "But the problem is they don't know how to deal with it. They don't have a strategy, they don't have even the guidance, what to do? So, that's my mission, you know."

He aims to show Saudis how to see and how to think critically. He knows the dangers of extremism firsthand because of his high school classmates turned terrorists. He insists art is an answer, a way to pose sensitive questions about ideology and religion.

"If you'll give them a space where at least they can speak freely — that's the beginning, and I think that's what's missing in this country," he says. "If you go to school, you cannot say what you want. If you go to mosque, you cannot say what you want [because of] family pressure, society pressure."

In a free space, an artistic space, he says, "You will see how they became different."

The art produced here is different. It's a daring visual critique of Saudi culture.

Performance videos play on a TV at the workshop. One is a satire of Saudi Arabia's ultra-religious culture, in which sketching human figures is forbidden: A group of solemn Saudi men sketch a plastic mannequin, a nude female. This act is so taboo in Saudi Arabia that the mannequin had to be shipped from Dubai and cut up into numbered pieces to get past Saudi customs officials.

The one woman at the workshop is Njoud Alanbari. Her art focuses on problems in female education. The government-approved posters found in public schools, which are mostly in pink, inspire her work. But the messages are harsh. "The colors are so twisted," she says. The posters list "proper" behavior and include a long list of no's.

"No music, no pornography, don't travel," Alanbari says, and raises an eyebrow. "Actually, as a kid, I didn't know what pornography is." The posters are in every public school. "It's so intense," she says. "It's everywhere."

A drawing of a sword underlines every "no." Alanbari plays with these official images — in one instance, replacing a female silhouette with a monkey's head, forcing a viewer to take a fresh look.

"You need someone to come and tell you, 'Look at this,'" she says. "Because people are so used to it, it's now common."

Another performance video called "Traditional Pain Treatment" shows a fellow artist with a map of the Middle East inked across his back enduring traditional bloodletting via cupping, with glass cups that are heated and placed on his skin. "So we said, we need to take the bad blood from all the countries – the bad ideology, the bad politics, the bad economics. Everywhere."

Conceptual art is new in Saudi Arabia — a visual language that is easily understood by a young generation steeped in Internet culture, but flies just as easily past Saudi censors. Gharem and his band of young artists push the boundaries of critical speech now, not with words but with images.

"Visually, you can say it, because no one can accuse you with an image," says Gharem. "But if you are going to write or text or say something, it's easy to accuse you." With a picture, he says, "If you don't like it, you can put it down."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a growing art scene in Saudi Arabia. It's got daring visual artist, unheard of just a few years ago. And they have become a critical voice in the conservative kingdom, where open calls for reform are a criminal offense. NPR's Deborah Amos recently met the leader of this new generation of Saudi artists. She caught up with him in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Abdulnasser Gharem doesn't have the background that you might expect for a successful artist, let alone one known for edgy work. He was once a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army. He went to high school with two of the 9/11 hijackers. His first major work sold at auction for a whopping $842,000. It's a glittering dome of a mosque set on its side like an animal trap, capturing a dove.

Are you the most famous artist in Saudi Arabia?

ABDULNASSER GHAREM: I don't care. I don't care. I don't care. I'm just focusing on my own mission. And this - I want to play my own role in this society, which will make me happy, and I can see the result.

AMOS: In his busy workshop, musicians are playing in the kitchen. A photographer is arranging images on a white wall. Forty-one-year-old Gharem gives young artists the help he never got.

GHAREM: When I was struggling as a kid, I want to see the museum. I want to see the real paintings. I want to talk to the artists, how they are thinking.

AMOS: The Internet connected him to the larger art world. He opened an art foundation with the money he earned from his first sale. In June, he's leading a tour of Saudi artists across the U.S. to show their work. There are plenty of talented artists in Saudi, he says.

GHAREM: The problem is they don't know how to deal with it, you know. They don't have the strategy. They don't have even the guidance what to do, so that's my mission.

AMOS: He aims to show Saudis how to see and how to think critically. He knows about extremism firsthand with the classmates-turned-hijackers he knew as a teenager. He insists art is an answer, a way to pose sensitive questions about ideology and religion.

GHAREM: If you'll give them a space where at least they can speak freely -and I think that's what's missing in this country. If you go school, you cannot say what you want. If you go to mosque, you cannot say what you want.

AMOS: This is a free space.

GHAREM: Exactly. You will see how they became different.

AMOS: The art produced here is different. It's daring visual critiques of Saudi culture. Performance videos play on a TV at the workshop.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This one is a satire. It's a group of solemn Saudi men sketching a plastic mannequin, a nude female. This act is so taboo in Saudi Arabia, the mannequin had to be shipped in from Dubai and cut up into numbered pieces to get past Saudi custom officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: Another artist, a young woman, examines problems in female education.

NJOUD MOHAMMED ALANBARI: My name is Njoud Mohammed (ph) Alanbari.

AMOS: She creates art from the government-approved posters found in public schools. The posters are mostly pink. The messages are mostly harsh, a long list of no's.

ALANBARI: No music, no pornography, don't travel. In public schools, it's all over the place. It's, like, it's so, like, intense. It's everywhere.

AMOS: A drawing of a sword underlines every no. Alanbari plays with the official images, for example, sticking in a monkey's head instead of a woman's, forcing a viewer to take a fresh look.

AMOS: This video is called "Traditional Pain Treatment," and Gharem explains.

GHAREM: It's cupping. You know cupping?

AMOS: Traditional pain - yes, cupping.

A fellow artist is filmed enduring traditional bloodletting with glass cups that are heated and placed on his skin. There's a map of the Middle East inked across his back.

GHAREM: So we said we need to take (laughter) the bad blood from all the countries the bad ideology. I mean the bad ideology, the bad, you know, politic, the bad economic, the - everywhere.

AMOS: Conceptual art is new in Saudi, a visual language that's easily understood by a young generation steeped in Internet culture. But it flies by the Saudi censors.

GHAREM: Visually, you can say it because no one can accuse you with an image. But if you're going to write or text or say something, it's easy to accuse you.

AMOS: You won't go to court for an image.

GHAREM: Yeah, exactly, for an image. OK. If you don't like it, you can put it down.

AMOS: In a country where poets and writers have faced harsh punishment in jail, Gharem and his band of young artists are pushing the boundaries of free expression, not with the word but with the image. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.