Art and artistic taste is completely subjective, and we certainly have nothing against a pretty painting. We do, however, have a great deal against the thinly disguised lack of imagination that plagues some art from the region, and we strongly feel that there is more meaning in this part of the world that demands to be communicated.
Enter Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem. On November 19, Abu Dhabi Art hosted the launch of Gharem’s book, Art of Survival – although the artist, who doubles as an officer in the Saudi army, was unable to attend personally because of work constraints. This highlights the extraordinary character of the man whose installation made history earlier this year at the Christie’s Dubai auction: his ‘Message/Messenger’, piece, incorporating a wood and copper dome resembling Jerusalem shrine Dome of the Rock, sold for almost Dhs3.1 million – more than eight times its pre-sale estimate.
‘Message/Messenger’ is, like all his work, a delicious, epistemological affront. When we first encountered it, our immediate reaction was to flinch. The sensitising reflex was swiftly followed by excitement. There is, in fact, nothing blasphemous about the piece because Gharem is not an artist who stoops to sensationalism. Neither does he seek attention by pandering to ugly stereotypes or employing religious and cultural irreverence. What we find instead is an open-ended wake-up call, which is reiterated time and again throughout his biography.
Engagingly authored by Henry Hemming, Gharem’s book, Art of Survival, is a thought-provoking account of the artist’s life and journey. It is also a poignant and seldom-seen view of his home country, Saudi Arabia. The narrative follows the chronology of Gharem’s major works, bringing to light the stories that inspired them and the wars that provoked them.
‘The most important thing is the story of the artwork,’ Gharem says, affirming our sentiment that this is not just another biography to jump on the bandwagon of shameless self-promotion. The humanity of the stories depicted here, which have brought forth his artwork, touch us just as deeply as the works themselves. They remind us of how vital it is to remember, even if nothing can be done to change what’s already past.
‘The title of the book is Art of Survival,’ Gharem stresses. ‘If my art will not help the people, what’s the use of it? It’s nothing. It’s pointless. This is the purpose of my art.’ And by help, he means engage, prod, challenge gently. His work, though often political, remains respectful and deliberately avoids pointing the accusatory finger at any person, party or regime. ‘I’m trying to find a cosmic language,’ he continues. ‘The subjects I pick are objective things that affect all of us.’
He then alludes to his installation, Sirat. The Arabic word ‘sirat’ means path and also refers to the bridge featured in the Qur’anic judgement day, which man will have to cross (over a raging hell-pit) to reach heaven. The significance is that the same bridge will be dangerously narrow for the wicked, and broad for the good. It’s an inexhaustible trope which in this instance suggests that, by definition of our complex nature, every human experience is open to a plethora of interpretations. The installation provoked unwarranted controversy around Gharem’s Brunei Gallery exhibition in London. The cause? An assumption that Qur’anic text had been spray-painted onto a road, which was not the case at all.
Such ignorant paranoia drives home the piece’s message ever more strongly. Sirat and its controversy highlights the message that in making life choices, one needs to be wary of symbols and our tendency to place blind faith in them (or our conception of them).
‘It’s not only for my people,’ Gharem reiterates. ‘Everybody in the world is looking for their path. I’m not talking to a specific people. I’m talking to the whole planet. That’s my job. Each artwork has a speech and my speeches should have that global language.’
‘Abdulnasser Gharem – Art of Survival’ is available at Magrudy’s, Virgin, Kinokuniya and Jashanmal, or online at www.amazon.co.uk, for Dhs195. For more info, see www.abdulnassergharem.com