Is art art-ificial or superficial in Saudi Arabia? The example of Gharem Studios
The Saudi contemporary art scene grew up in the last decade and very much so did Gharem Studios and its founder Abdulnasser Gharem. He speaks about that.
An explosion of Chinese art shaped the first decade of the 2000s with the proliferation of cultural centers in major Chinese cities. The West was mainly seduced by the famous Ai Weiwei, who was described in 2011 by the art magazine Magazine as the most powerful person in the art scene. Since then, the Middle East has found an unprecedented place therein. 2018 was the year the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia opened its doors and revealed its talents.
As a pillar of Vision 2030, the country’s modernization program, contemporary art has become a priority to the new kingdom. To achieve this goal, it has provided $ 64 billion in culture and entertainment for over the next decade and could be a political blessing that enables young artists to show their talents to the world.
One of the most famous artists of his time, Abdulnasser Gharem, told us a bit about the Vision 2030, his understanding of it, and a few more things in the following interview behind the scenes of art, in a neon-lit mosque, shared to DPA :
Over the wall, neon green and pink lights fall over the dark street. A metal door blocks the way into the lighted courtyard. Because of its sculptures and installations, it does not look like a normal residential building in the Saudi capital Riyadh. In the middle of it is a mosque made of wire that throws its neon light over the wall outside. No bell nor house number is visible.
With shorts on, but barefooted and a face full of dark circles, the man, whose works of art are bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars, sits in the midst of well-ordered chaos. Bookshelves that are crammed to the ceiling are full over to the top of the walls. Drawings and photos of projects are fitting tightly on there. “This is a place to think,” says Abdulnasser Gharem. “We produce and show our works of art abroad, but we can think freely here.”
Gharem is considered one of the most significant contemporary artists in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region. In 2011, one of his works in Dubai was auctioned and made famous at Christie’s auction for $ 842,000. The money, Gharem says, was used to train young Saudi artists. “There is no proper art education here,” he says, pointing to the books on the shelves.
Hanging over Gharem`s head is a large-format picture on the wall. A fighter jet, embedded in Arabic-floral ornaments. The picture is made by him, and reminds him of his 25 years as an officer in the Saudi Army. Gharem cuts the individual letters of thousands of stamp-texts and re-assembles them to several-meter-long canvases. Those are then printed out. At a second glance, messages are hidden behind the pictures.
Five years ago, the 45-year-old founded his “Gharem Studio” – a low-roofed house with a courtyard and several workspaces. He wanted to create a place for young artists who have ideas, but no possibility and no infrastructure to implement them. Some days the musicians come in, others are taken up by the fashion designers.
So Saudi Arabia is changing. The ambitious “Vision 2030” is transforming both the economy and society of the country. It’s not just about making the kingdom more oil- independent. But rather about opening it up more and more, because the social pressure over it is ever increasing. Nearly 70 percent of the population living in the country is younger than 35. Alas, it is the time of the young.
“Right now is the time of heroes,” says Shaweesh, who sits in the room next door in front of the computer and is looking for inspiration. The speakers are exploding with melodic American hip-hop. Shaweesh is one of the eleven permanent artists in Gharem Studios. With a full beard and looking puffy, the 28-year-old male resembles a hipster from London. The heroes were lacking entertainment though.
The young generation grew up in homes without public cinemas, as they were re-opened again barely last year and that with the help of Vision 2030. The royal house wanted to offer some support and announced that in the coming years, 64 million US dollars are to be spent in the art and entertainment industry.
The newly founded “Misk” Foundation Art Institute aims at providing young artists with a platform and supporting them with scholarships, as well as trainings and establishing hundreds of other programs. So far, only in the city of Jeddah on the Red Sea, a few small collectives such as those of Gharem Studios have shaped some small art scenes. This, in particular, makes the Studios happy.
The government also contacted Gharem and his Gharem Studios and wanted to involve him in the development of the art scene in Saudi Arabia. He refused. Nevertheless, he thinks that the royal art institute can be a good option, especially for young artists.
Gharem has decided: With his art studio and education, he wants to establish a long-term influence on the Saudi social design through Gharem Studios. Above all, he wants to offer an alternative to radical and conservative ideas. He wants people to start thinking for themselves.
He is thinking back to his own school days and comparing them to the current situation. The younger generation now has quite different options – they only need a place where the ideas could be spread freely. And do you think he can stir up an art revolution in Saudi Arabia?