At Bates College, we are encouraged to express our identity and opinions freely, without repercussions. Students can express their political opinions through art, protests, and social media. However, in places like Saudi Arabia it is a different story. Abdulnasser Gharem, one of the artists on exhibit in Olin Museum for the Phantom Punch exhibit, gave a lecture Thursday, January 26th about the struggles of artistic expression in Saudi Arabia.
Before the age of the internet, “[I]t was a little bit hard to say what you were thinking especially in that, you know, conservative society, it’s not that easy if you have an idea to say it to anyone so you needed to be careful” said Gharem. For him, “[Art] was the only exit…or even the source for us to have personality or to discover something new…I didn’t know anything about music or poems…it wasn’t in the schools so there wasn’t books about it”, Gharem added.
Once Gharem was introduced to chat rooms, his entire worldview changed. Now, he could go on the streets t0 photograph his realities and upload them to a universal, digital audience. For instance, something now taken for granted such as downloading a photo, would take hours back in the chat-room age. The internet also allowed Gharem to research stories from his region, one in particular struck a chord within him that would later amount to his artistic career.
In 1982, a village in Saudi Arabia faced an oncoming tempest. They turned to their tribe leader, also known as a sheikh, for guidance. The sheikh believed that a concrete bridge was a safe place for the people to congregate during the storm, for it would persevere despite the stormy conditions. Unfortunately, the sheikh overestimated the bridge’s strength, and it fell along with many people during the storm. Many died as a result.
“And I was thinking, why did they follow him?” asked Gharem, “Why did no one just you know come up with another suggestion. And at that time it was me, you know, after having some knowledge because of the internet…I had an inner voice and I wanted to say something. So I think the best part of my job is through images and art.”
This inspired one of his works, “Al-Siraat (The Path)” (2011), which is on display in the museum. He, along with others, spray-painted the word “path” thousands of times over the bridge. Many had forgotten the story, and the media did not cover what had happened at the time. Gharem explained his interpretation of the art: “No one knows what it means, the path. Does it mean going with a group and feeling safe? Is it made to follow someone?…Or is it something you’re gonna leave behind you so that others can see it?” In a way, Gharem began his path creating art for others to see and interpret for themselves.
A large portion of Gharem’s work involves performance and site-specific exhibitions. This stems from his culture, “I believe in performance. In our culture, in our religion there is a lot of performance for praying or even dancing…so I started performance on the streets on the side of my time”, Gharem explained.
One street performance in particular was about the environment. The government had created a park and had planted trees foreign to the region. Those trees spread and killed native trees, negatively impacting the environment. Gharem saw this, and wrapped himself in a plastic sheet with a tree. He then started walking through the streets.
“This work was about the environment… no one could have a way to say [anything about the foreign trees]…no one can say it’s bad because there is no, no channels no one can say no, and they don’t know what to do. So I said ok I’m going to start wrapping myself”, he explained.
In 2011, Gharem sold his artwork “Message/Messenger” during a Christie’s auction in Dubai for $842,500 USD, the highest price ever paid for a living Arab artist . The piece depicts an elaborate, gilded dome of a mosque propped open— resembling a classical trap. Within the dome is a white dove, the universal symbol for peace. “I was thinking about what was happening about me…how [religious people] play with [religion], how they manipulate it, you and your principal… so you are going to find a lot of pressure from the family, from society, from the mosque, from the schools…”Gharem explained.
Abdulnasser Gharem believes that one of the most important things we can do is to promote artistic expression to younger generations. Back in Riyadh, he along with his colleagues created a studio next to a bakery that allows both boys and girls to cultivate their talent. The studio has no signs and is in a residence with no near by neighbors, so that genders can legally be in the same room. His studio is a safe place for artists, musicians, fashion designers, and film-makers. His mission for the studio was to create, ” a space where they can practice and create new ideas, so we gave them the studio as a place…And they feel safe and they can speak freely…and nothing will happen to them.”
When asked if he feared he would get in trouble for his controversial lifestyle, Gharem noted, “The problem is…the religious system, the economic system and the political system it’s based on dividing…[but] it’s ok to say it through art because it’s more soft and the people will start to think… It’s the easy way to do it through art.” Indeed, pictures speak a thousand words.