DISPATCH BY: SEAN FOLEY
The response to the mass shooting in Orlando and the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport brought into stark relief our nation’s divisions about how best to address the threat of violence inspired by radical Islam at home and abroad. As Houstonians take part in the national debate about how to prevent future attacks, they can draw on a potent new resource: a show of artists from Saudi Arabia, a country which has also been the victim of terrorism and has enlisted artists to help defeat extremism and the violence it inspires.
The show, entitled “Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia,” opened on the evening of June 18 and runs through October 10 at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. It is supported by two organizations dedicated to promoting Saudi art—The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the Gharem Studio—and produced by CULTURUNNERS, which works to mobilize artists across borders. Station Museum founders James and Ann Harithas and their staff helped to curate the show, which will tour nationally.
The show provides an unprecedented view of how Saudi Arabia’s young people look at religious extremism, gender, politics, violence, and the other issues impacting their lives. Many of these works are interactive and use contradictory and jarring images—often leaving it up to the viewer to make the linkages between them. This approach consciously rejects Western conceptions of the artist as a God-like individual who singularly creates new culture in the studio, and then shares it with others at a public showing. Instead, the viewer in “Parallel Kingdom” is invited to join the creators of the pieces as an artist: to fashion the connections and meanings which are hinted at in the individual works.
Abdulnasser Gharem’s conceptual sculpture, The Capital Dome, provides an excellent starting point for viewers to experience the show’s collaborative approach to defining art. The large sculpture, which sits at the center of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art on a large black platform, is a model of the U.S. capital but blends images and ideas many see as inherently contradictory. Below the large white dome, for instance, sits a golden mosque with the opening verse of the Quran written along the edge in Arabic and English.
The Statue of Freedom is not on top of the dome but instead stands in front of the dome and its neck is attached to a long rope running to the side of the dome. The sculpture in part reflects a factor that has motivated Gharem to produce his art: the realization that he “was one of the victims” of extreme Islamic ideas.
Gharem, who has championed anti-extremism among his country’s young people, has a unique perspective on the subject. Not only was he an elite commando in the Saudi army, but he was also a high school classmate of Wail al-Shehri and Waleed al-Shehri, two of the 19 hijackers who participated in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the early 2000s, Gharem helped found a small group to discuss art and to provide his society with an alternative to the ideas that had inspired the Al-Shehri brothers. Out of these discussions emerged the contemporary Saudi art movement.
One of the men and women who joined the movement was Gharem’s younger brother, Ajlan, whose contribution to the show, Paradise Has Many Gates, is a 32 foot by 98 foot metal cage is in the shape of a mosque. It now stands outside of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art’s entrance and is flanked by a small minaret. Viewers can enter and explore the cage, which features the rugs one would find in a real mosque. There is also a video of the cage—when it was temporarily erected in Riyadh—which shows Saudi men entering the mosque and praying, including some wearing the type of orange jump suits worn by the prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Prison or the men who clean the Grand Mosques in Mecca.
No less provocative are the works of the men and women who explore other subjects. Nugamshi, for instance, blends oil and the Arabic language, and, on the show’s opening night, painted Arabic letters on a large canvas using crude oil as part of a short performance piece.
By contrast, the women artists in the show—Sarah Abu Abdullah, Ahaad Alamoudi, Basmah Felemban, and Njoud Alanbari—focus on gender and the role of women in Saudi society—two issues that are also central to the rhetoric of Islamic extremists. Among the most stimulating of these works is Alanbari’s Elementary 240, which highlights, through a large pink mural and a seven-minute video, the gaps between what society preaches as truth and its highest ideals for women and what young Saudi girls actually want.
In November 2015, Alanbari and an image from Elementary 240 appeared in “Filter al-Watan” (“national filter”), an episode of Khambalah, a YouTube comedy show produced by Telfaz11, a Saudi online entertainment company whose name is meant to be an homage to the events of the year 2011 in the Arab World and how those events changed how the world looks at Arabs.
The company, which aims to transform how society looks at creativity, also employs leading artists, such as Shaweesh. He has produced striking photos by adding a figure from popular culture to an historic photograph. In one of his most powerful pieces, Shaweesh added Darth Vader to a photograph of Emir Feisal, the leader of the Arab Revolt in World War I, and his delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference after the war. The conference determined the boundaries of the modern Middle East and symbolizes for many Arabs the role of Western imperialism in their region. Indeed, the Islamic State has sought to capitalize on that anger to justify its actions in Iraq and Syria.
There is little question that recent events have reignited America’s debate about how to combat the threat from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Should we focus on the military, law enforcement, diplomacy, intelligence, economic power, or some type of hybrid approach? Should we pass new gun control laws? Lost in these debates is an option implicitly raised by “Parallel Kingdom”: namely, working with the young Saudis whose work is a powerful force countering the extremist ideas that poisoned the mind of Omar Mateen. We owe it to ourselves to listen to what these artists have to say. Their work is less an “answer” to the problems we all face than it is a fresh questioning, a constant reminder of the complexities of a sometimes terrifying global situation.
ARTISTS: Sarah Abu Abdullah, Ahaad Alamoudi, Njoud Alanbari, Rashed Al Shashai, Dhafer Al Shehri, Ahmad Angawi, Basmeh Felemban, Abdulnasser Gharem, Ajlan Gharem, Nugamshi, Shaweesh, Telefaz 11
DATE: 18 June 2016
Dr. Sean Foley is an Associate Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University and specializes in the Middle East and the Islamic World. He has published widely and has been a Fulbright scholar in Syria, Turkey, and Malaysia. From April 2013 through January 2014, he lived and traveled in Saudi Arabia. Foley’s first book, The Arab Gulf States: Beyond Oil and Islam, was published by Lynne Rienner Press in 2010. He is now finishing a book on the kingdom that features an extensive discussion of the contemporary Saudi arts movement.
Foley Twitter: @foleyse
Foley Website: www.seanfoley.org
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