Sharjah Art Museum displays work by Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem

The influential Saudi Arabian artist questions traditional thought and political ideology

In 2011, at Christie's Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art sale in Dubai, a work by Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem evoked a round of applause when it was sold for $842,500 (Dh3.09 million), making him the highest-selling living Arab artist.

The piece, called Messenge/Messenger, is a three-metre-wide wood and copper installation of a golden dome symbolising the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Inside the dome was a dove.

The work was up for sale by Edge of Arabia, the now-defunct platform for the promotion of contemporary Saudi Arabian art and culture, of which Gharem was a founding member, and after the auction, he donated the sum to various educational programmes in his country. In fact his work has always gone hand-in-hand with his views on education in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, he set up Gharem Studio in Riyadh to help those who would otherwise not have access to art. And his students in turn created highly personal and expressive works. The first exhibition of pieces from the Gharem Studio were shown at London's Asia House gallery in 2016.

As with all of the artist's works, Message/Messenger deconstructed popular social and religious beliefs, portraying another side to stereotypical views of Middle Eastern subjects.

Gharem, who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, is one the most significant artists of his generation and one who has consistently worked to promote contemporary art from the Gulf. At the core of his largely conceptual oeuvre is his desire to pave the way for progress while still maintaining his Saudi heritage. His multifaceted works incorporate a variety of media, including photography, video, painting, sculpture and performance, all of which come together in immersive installations, and thought-provoking multimedia creations tackling issues pertaining to contemporary society.

“We are at the beginning of the change,” says Gharem on the current situation in Saudi Arabia. “The authorities had to change their logic. I think they broke their rules, changed their logic and found that people are ready for change. Of course, there will be mistakes, but the government is more flexible now. Now we are living a life like an app – you need to update it every day. We need it to be updated every day."

The works on display at the Sharjah Museum

Gharem is showing his work at Sharjah Art Museum in the exhibition Subversive Forms of Social Sculpture, alongside Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig, a representative of the Austrian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. The exhibition, held in co-operation with Galerie Brigitte Schenk in Cologne, Germany, comprises 40 impressive artworks by the two artists, set out in the sprawling ground floor space of the Sharjah Art Museum. What the two conceptual artists have in common is their desire to shed light on the subtle qualities of today's socio-cultural landscape. Through their work, we are led to question often challenging and highly politicised topics of our times. Their artworks, in a variety of sizes and media, are subversive studies on society – Gharem and Zobernig critique the very structures that they seek to emulate.

Sharjah is particularly significant for Gharem. It was here in 2007 that he first participated in the Sharjah Biennial. “In 2007, it was like I was being born as an artist,” he says. “I learnt from the curators and the other international artists. Sharjah is one of the most enlightened cultural cities in the region; I love what they are doing. They have a global language and introduce artists to an international dialogue.”

For Subversive Forms of Social Sculpture, Gharem was told to create whatever he wanted. “This is a big deal for this region to have this freedom,” he says.

On view is Hemisphere (2013) a work depicting a giant, multicoloured dome, made from digital print and lacquer paint on rubber stamps, on aluminium. It was inspired by the cerebral hemispheres of the brain and how the right and left cerebral hemispheres interact with one another affecting a human being's behaviour, belief and ideology. It is a work that serves as a metaphor to examine the modern disconnect between Islamic tradition and cultural identities, with a special emphasis on the challenging interpretations on subject matter pertaining to the Muslim. It is a work that also represents Gharem's personal experience working in the Saudi Arabian military and his beliefs that the Islamic faith should be used as a means for peace and harmony.

Among the new works Gharem is displaying at Sharjah Art Museum is Aniconism (2015). The series, made from films and installation, explores the term iconoclasm, the destroying of icons. "We were planning to buy a mannequin for the piece. We didn't find it in Saudi or in Dubai. We tried to take it to Saudi, but it wasn't possible to take the full body," he says.  

They had to cut the mannequin’s body parts to be shipped to Saudi and then they held an art class for students to learn how to draw the human form from the mannequin put together. “We built the mannequin again so that it was a re-enactment of the past, and recorded everything on film,” explains Gharem. “This is an artwork that reveals the iconoclasm that still continues today.”

In another work, titled Hijama: Collective Unconscious Mind, named after the traditional Arabian medicinal practice of wet cupping or medicinal bleeding in order to purify the body, Gharem comments on the need to clean the region of bad ideologies and extremism. "I drew the Arab world map on someone's back and we started the cupping to take the bad blood out of his body along with the ideological extremism," he says. "Now, we need to inject the collective consciousness with good ideas about the environment, education, the poor and the rich to better mankind," he says.


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If we don’t look closely enough, we may not see the real statements in Gharem’s works. Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums calls Gharem “one of the Arab world’s most influential artists who engages with contemporary socio-political issues.”

“He is successful in his ability to be overt with particular ideas and political aspirations while simultaneously including cleverly hidden messages not obvious to the eye, until you take a closer look,” Ataya says.

Like many of his works in Subversive Forms, Gharem shows us that there is always another side to the story; to what we see. “This act of getting closer to the work to decipher these messages is a metaphor for the importance of taking time to see the finer print so to speak in fully understanding the larger picture,” Ataya adds.

“This shows great complexity in his thought process and gives the viewer layers of meaning to ignite the dialogue he intends to provoke. We at the Sharjah Museums Authority will continue to provide this vital platform to showcase artists of the region.” 

Gharem’s is a form of art that desires change. A work of art has the ability to ignite a revolution in one’s mind, he says. Gharem’s message: art can spark social change. As he says, “The change in Saudi is evolution not revolution.”

Subversive Forms of Social Sculpture is at Sharjah Art Museum until November 17