This past week was full of activities at the Bates College Museum of Art. On Monday, January 23 the museum held a pop-up exhibition show on Lisbon Street. The visiting artist, Nugamshi, performed his Calligraffiti – an intersection between calligraphy and graffiti in the museum’s downtown studio space. And on Thursday, January 26 Bates hosted a talk by Abdulnasser Gharem, one of the most influential artists in the history of Saudi Arabia.

As someone who is passionate about art I may be biased, but I find show openings to be fantastic. They often provide the visitors with the unique chance to interact with artists. Even though an artwork can often stand on its own, talking to artists reveals their thought process, biography, and interests. It gently complements the visitor’s understanding of art. This was the case for Tuesday’s pop-up exhibition by Nugamshi. The museum’s studio space downtown was filled with incredibly diverse people who wanted to experience Saudi Arabian art. Through the course of an hour and a half, Nugamshi created several calligraffiti art pieces that blended canvas with the walls. Nugamshi makes his own brushes to fit his controlled body movement. The result is an impressive body of work dealing with some of the most pressing topics in the contemporary world: justice and morality in black and white paint.

While Nugamshi’s pieces from this show will be destroyed (the artist often destroys his works), his website and social media presence offer a way to support his ephemeral performances. As an artist myself, it is priceless to be able to experience other artist creating first hand. It is a privilege to have insight on someone else’s creations. For me it means more than simply an intellectual understanding – it is an exercise of empathy.

On Thursday, January 26 Bates College had the honor of receiving Abdulnasser Gharem as a guest speaker. Gharem is internationally known as perhaps the most influential contemporary Saudi Arabian artist – it is not an exaggeration to say that he has changed the cultural scene in his country. Gharem spent 23 years in the Saudi Arabian Army as a Lieutenant Colonel while dedicating himself to promoting art in his country. In his speech, Gharem mentioned that his works started in the early 1980s, trying to find his path in the world of arts in order to have his voice heard. Later, he created performances in his small town in Saudi Arabia and created pop-up works in his country. Gharem gained an international audience in the art world when he reached a record price for the work Message/Messenger in Dubai sold for $800,000 at auction. Gharem mentioned that at the time, he had to sell his car in order to build the work.

In his speech, Gharem told the audience that conceptual art was not quite popular in Saudi Arabia before the 2000s. The internet provided him with a tool to find his ways, exchanging ideas with other artist. Today, art is received differently. He mentioned how the public reception of his artworks went from confusion to appreciation. Gharem now has a studio in Riyadh – he provides ample support to the new generation of Saudi Arabian artists who follow his steps. This new wave of artists has someone to look for support and advice, which is more valuable than words could possibly express.

Talking to Gharem during the exhibition reception, I was astonished to see how one humble person has the capacity to change the ways of art history. He is someone to be followed, not only because of his superb technique and art pieces but also because of his ideals. He is genuine about making a supportive, creative community in his country. His studio promotes the introduction of a new wave of art in Saudi Arabia – which also introduces the world to Saudi Arabian art and culture.

Last week’s events were a continuation of the Phantom Punch exhibition, which will stay up in the museum until March 18. The show, curated by Dan Mills and Loring Danforth, presents over a dozen Saudi Arabian works in a one-of-a-kind show. This exhibition is as much about Saudi Arabian culture as it is about the human condition in a globalized world. In times such as ours, empathy is something to be actively maintained and constructed. Having a museum in our backyard is more than a privilege: visiting it is priceless.