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Middle East

A Message to the West - From a Thoughtful and Passionate Messenger from the East

Abdulnasser Gharem - Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi  Armed Forces & Saudi Contemporary Artist  Talks to AAD’s Laura Stewart about Bridging These Seemingly Incompatible Roles After I briefly met and spoke with Abdulnasser Gharem at Art Basel in 2012, I felt that I had left a single, and fundamental question that I wished to ask him dangling.

It was simply this.

How could he, a Loyal Officer in the Saudi Armed Forces create art that In many cases challenges not only Saudi Government policy but asks large questions about the cultural mores of the Arab world?

The interview below answered that, and illuminated so much more about this uniquely situated person, with regard to the relationship between the East and the West in the art world and the world we cohabit today.

A message to the west 2Abdulnasser Gharem's 3-foot tall stamps are larger-than-life interpretations of the bureaucratic seals he employs in his day job as a lieutenant colonel in Saudi Arabia's army

A message to the west 1 Saudi Artist Abdulnasser Gharem 

LS: You are a Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi Arabian Army, and an increasingly well-known contemporary artist - who's work is often critical of your government and Saudi and Arab culture. For a Westerner this seems like it would be a nearly impossibly tightrope wire to walk. How do you do it?

AG: To be honest, you have to go back and understand this society - the society that I live in. It is a society that is missing the freedom that you take for granted. When you are raised in this kind of community, you must, for lack of a better word become a “double-dealer.” It is the only way you can live and face this lack of freedom in the community, the society, the government, and at the same time express your innermost feelings through your art. Everyone here does this. They have to present one “face” to the public, and another in private, and you learn when you are very young, how to do this effectively and who to trust, and who not to trust.

I am not talking just about Saudi. This is something that applies to the whole Arab world. At the end of the day, you have to have a job, and make a living. In my case that job is as an army officer. Then many people like myself use that job to fund a more personal vocation, whatever it is that makes you passionate, and in my case, that is my art.

LS: I understand what you are saying in theory, but in practicality, how does it work. By day, for example, you are working for the Saudi army, perhaps the part of the army government that is, symbolically, and in reality, the representation of all that the government espouses, but by night, you are creating installations that are, if not explicitly criticizing that same government, they are implicitly challenging many of its values?

AG: This is an interesting thing, and in some ways a paradox. First of all it took me ages to “out” myself as an artist to the Army. I was essentially living a compartmentalized double life. Then when I did let the Army know that I was an artist and was exhibiting my art, several things came into play. First, most of the interviews that I did were with Western publications and were in English and so my colleagues and superiors could not read them, and I knew that. The paradoxical piece of this is also that once they knew that my work was being celebrated in the West, whatever its content, it did not make me less deserving of their respect, it made them respect me more, as it is the default position of many people in his part of the world to crave the approval of the West.

LS: That is utterly fascinating and would never have occurred to me, but as to the actual content of your art, especially the series’ that you have done that have themes that are critical or questioning towards Saudi, or indeed Arab extremist views, I still am not clear on how you were able to pass this work past the “censors” in, as you put it, a non-free society - especially with regard to freedom of expression.

AG: The answer to that is really that I was lucky. I had met and had access to the most sophisticated people in power in Saudi and so they “got it”, they understood, and in some cases very much agreed with the themes in my art. They were well-travelled. They knew what was going on in the international art world and they saw how my art fit into that context and they were not disturbed by it as it was no threat to them. Education and exposure to the outside world makes people far less threatened with regard to losing power. It is only those who are ignorant - or have not educated themselves about their own culture, much less the culture and art in the wider world that are the zealots when it comes to censorship.Finally, if you live in a place like Saudi your entire life, you just know. You know when you have gone too far, and you know what will just slip past any censorship or negative commentary.

A message to the west 3The Concrete Block, © of the artist,

LS: Can you discuss expand on that issue as I have always believed that knowledge is power and you are quite right to point out that in the Arab world as well as the West, those who are most afraid, are those who have not studied first their own cultural and artistic or religious traditions, and therefore cling to tenets that are ironclad in a world of “black and white” rather than inhabiting the grey world that emerges with exposure.

AG: You are right and especially in the decades before the explosion of information that could be gotten from the internet, many artists from the Arab world, Iranian, Lebanese, etc., travelled to the West just so that they museums, the libraries, the art schools. I don’t blame that for that as the infrastructure of a visual arts tradition and access to research was just not available here. The downside is that by doing this they learned first and foremost about the artistic traditions and school and history of Western art before, and in some cases in lieu of learning about the vast and deep cultures from which they came.

This led to Arab artists doing nothing but imitating Western art, and doing things that were derivative and with references not drawn from their own cultures, which is sad actually.



LS: You say that this changed when the internet and social media became pretty much available to anyone who wanted to use it to educate themselves. But I am curious to know how many Arab artists actually used that technology to first learn about their own histories, before they used it as a catalyst to light the fuse towards Democratic transformations of their countries.

AG: Yes, that was, and still is, much of the problem. Not just artists, but many people from this part of the world yearned for “freedom” and “democracy” but really didn’t understand in practical terms what that meant. They skipped a few steps in their education regarding how to actually set up representative governments and write fair and lasting constitutions because they (and this is not their fault) had never studied the scholars and philosophers and others who wrote those blueprints. People had a vague idea of what they wanted, but had never experienced, or learned about the steps that have to be taken for smooth transitions of power and empowerment and tolerance regarding different classes and religious affiliations. So when they “won” - so to speak - through their protests during the Arab Spring, many of them who had used the tools of social media etc.,were unprepared to face the vacuum created by the overthrown governments.

They just did not know how to build patiently and through learning that they had never been given by their countries, their school or their families. So history repeated itself in the way that it always seems to in this part of the world. They resorted to the safety and security of looking backwards to something familiar - to a restricted government, with power in the hands of only the few, but a government which was at least in control - and less frightening than complete chaos.

LS: This is all fascinating, but we are now talking about technology and politics. Where does art enter the equation?

AG: Well that is my passion and purpose in life. I believe that the visual can often be far more easily interpreted and with less hatred and fighting, than the verbal. Artists, at their best, become a mirror for the society that they live in. They force themselves, and the viewer to look at things in a new way. I believe for example that translations of, for the purposes of our conversation, Arabic to English, are often terrible, not accurate, nor nuanced, and riddled with mistakes and factual errors. In societies which are in the midst of upheaval, and their homes are perpetually occupied and the territories for war (their own, and the grounds of wars perpetuated by others) these mistakes in translation of religious texts, historical texts and even art historical texts can be dangerous.

LS: How then can this “Lost in Translation” cycle be stopped?

AG: For artists, and here I am talking about myself, I think artists can be the catalysts for defining terminology and identity. Artists need to become metaphorical archeologists, digging up their cultural and artistic heritages and studying their native lands. However, they must not dig in a random or selective way. It must be done smoothly, elegantly and comprehensively.

A message to the west 5"The Capitol Dome.” by Lt. Col. Abdulnasser Gharem of Saudi Arabia. (Alex Maguire/The Washington Post)

LS: Let’s talk specifically about some of your art. I have looked through your website and am fascinated by many of your themes and their execution. What are you up to now?

AG: Right now I am doing a lot of research. I am particularly doing a lot of work regarding ISIS. They are disappointed kids, they have no role in that government and society and so they turn to these organizations to make them feel that they are of value in some way. I think I realize what is going with ISIS as a guy living in Saudi, better than many in the West can. In the Islamic faith, the idea of martyrdom is tied up with the teaching people to hate their temporal body - you know all about harram - et. So in sort of a leap that I don’t think was intended by the Koran, this leads people to think that it is not only OK to get rid of your body, it is a good thing and is the way to realize the dream of heaven. The other part of this is the Islamic teachings about sacrifice, sacrificing your personal needs, wants, etc., here on earth, and ultimately the goal is to not need an earthly existence. This is what leads to people who blow themselves up. They believe that they need to get to next life, and to paradise, and if you do so, you will be celebrated and valuable. This is a powerful recruiting tool for, as I said at the beginning, a whole host of disappointed kids with no education, no aspirations, and basically no hope with regard to their life on earth.

LS: Unlike many Westerners I understand this. I keep seeing the rioting and the extreme behavior, not just in the Arab world, but all over the world, and I believe it is that we as human beings have, at this point in history, forgotten the teachings in the Bible or the Koran or any “moral guidebook” actually about taking care of those less fortunate, and it seems that greed is back, as a thing to be proud of, rather than ashamed of. If you take that combustible mix of lack of education, lack of jobs and therefore money and security, lack of empowerment and then add the confusion of adolescence, no matter how outrageous some acts are judged to be by one culture or another, we are really dealing with a global phenomenon of the twisting of religion to both radicalize and anesthetize the “forgotten” masses.

We in the West sometimes forget when we use language about Barbarism , etc., to describe the actions of ISIS (and God knows I am not excusing it) but we must always remember that we are the country that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is really kind of simple, genocides, extreme acts of violence against innocent non-warring citizens in the name of one God or another are always evil. Every 5-year-old is taught: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” It kind of applies here, don’t you think?

AG: Yes and then there are other forces at work that people in the West don’t understand about Arabs. For example, we have a different definition of being a “citizen” than does the West. As a Sunni, for example, it is accepted that you are the “privileged” class, which then, in the case of Saudi for example, leads to the persecution of the Shia.

LS: I see this process of “dehumanization” of the class that is being persecuted repeated over and over in history. It is amazing how the same language was used by Hitler against the Jews, as is used by the Sunni versus Shia, or vice versa. Once the “enemy” is no longer a human being, they are far too easy to “eliminate”.

AG: I agree and that is why there is so much of a need for people to study history, in the old cliche, so that you are not doomed to repeat it. This type of self-reflection is what I try to introduce through my art in Saudi society. You need to gently help a society look at itself in the mirror, and in my view you need to be neutral and natural when you do this. People respond to artwork in ways that they don’t to strident verbal treatises against the government.

A message to the west 6Abdulnasser Gharem painting: ‘In Transit – Fighter’ (2013)

LS: Let’s get specific about your art. How did you begin and I would love you to give me the story behind some of your most memorable series?

AG: Realizing that the Arab artistic tradition was chiefly in poetry, drama and storytelling—and had shied away from drawing and painting - which was not accepted by our conservative community, I started there. Drawings of human or animal forms was not accepted - although there is of course a long history of artistic calligraphy. Even though the human form was not considered appropriate for art, some elderly people took to such practice behind closed doors only. I admired those people in my village who had the courage to go against the grain and brave all odds to pave way for the next generation to accept art as it exists nowadays. I’m a living example of their bravery - and my art is an extension of their work.

LS: You have done a great deal of installation work that in both theme and execution might not translate immediately for the Western viewer - I am thinking for example of your “Stamp” series?

AG: Yes, you are right. It is interesting that you would notice that as you have now lived in the Arab World long enough to understand the meaning of the “Stamp”. Basically, the inspiration for these was a follow-on to my idea of “restored behavior” which is another iteration of your idea of history repeating itself. The stamp series is about repeating the mistakes of the past, and using certain “symbols” or “codes” in order to do this - and/or to retain power. The “Stamp” is the symbol of Theocracy. Having things “stamped” is our culture’s way of killing dreams, postponing goals, and as a form or bureaucratic control.

LS: And what about the “Concrete Blocks” series, which is not only visually stunning, but again, now that I have lived in your part of the world, I understand its symbolic import, I think. Can you explain?

AG: Yes. I came up with the idea of using the red and white concrete highway blocks in patterns as a metaphor for the mental “blocks” and “diversions” that the Saudi and many other Arab governments and societies use in order to impede forward progress, and to slow things down, and in some cases, to stop people, or the society dead in its tracks and send it careening backwards in an attempt to restore what people see as the “better” past, but which in actuality is only “better” because it has faded and so people forget that the “old ways” are not always the best ways.

LS: Tell me about your work No More Tears?

AG: That work came from thoughts I had about the famous speech given by President Obama in Cairo in 2010 reaching out to the Islamic world. I remember watching the crowds waiting with such expectation. I saw such hope in their eyes, and realized that they were thinking that this speech was going to change everything. I then thought to myself, even if this is the best speech ever given, it is only a speech. It is just one oration and cannot replace the fundamentals of education and learning about democracy - that takes generations to achieve - and so it made me sad, hence - No More Tears.

LS: And finally, I saw that your work “Message/Messenger” sold for a record-breaking price at a Christie’s auction in Dubai. I believe it was estimated at $70,000 to $100,000 and sold for $842,500. How do you feel about that? Proud? Nervous about market pressure? Not that big a deal?

AG: I guess what I did with the proceeds sums up how I felt about it. I was of course happy that people liked my work, but I never wanted it to become all about the “market” and money, etc. So I just donated the proceeds to the nonprofit, Edge of Arabia, and hoped that that it would help young artists achieve their dreams. I believe when you have good fortune, it is your duty to pass it on to others.

LS: That is lovely as you obviously named it “Message/Messenger” before it sold for such a huge sum of money, but then what happened allowed you (the messenger) to send a message about art and value, loud and clear. Funny coincidence, don’t you think?

AG: Not really (he laughs). That interpretation is very linear and Western of you. From where I come from, you know the expression in’shallah* (roughly, meaning: If God wills it) - it is the natural way of things. You cannot have a plan.

 A message to the west 7

A message to the west 8

A message to the west 9NO MORE TEARS (I-IV) From the series: Restored Behaviour Industrial lacquer paint on rubber stamps on 9mm plywood (H85 x W120cm) 2009.

 Screen Shot 2015 11 14 at 20.15.56

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* Treasures From India Jewels From The Al-Thani Collection, Metropolitan Museum Of Art

* Ancestral Arabia : Assyrian Culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

* Sheikha Al-Thani Kicks Off The SATUC Cup, In London


About the Author

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart

Laura Stewart has been a professional in the art world for 30+ years. Her career has included work as a journalist, editor, public relations professional and non-profit management consultant. She bega...