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Abdulnasser Gharem is a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Saudi Arabian Armed Forces, a man who's served in his country's military for more than two decades. But Gharem's true passion lies in a decidedly less rigid field — contemporary art.
His paintings, performances and installations, which have transformed the Saudi art scene, challenge people to question the same authority he upholds in his day job. Because of his artistic critique of the Saudi government, Gharem is careful about which works he shows in his home country, and which he saves for exhibits outside its borders. He hosted his first major solo exhibition in London this past month.
Gharem, who co-founded an art collective called Edge of Arabia to bring Arab art to the rest of the world, spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne about the difficulty of using images to reach an audience steeped in a text-oriented culture.
On discovering his passion for art
I start to read about the museum, about art fairs, about the other artists' lives — you know, the things I was missing, I find it. So when [the] Internet just came, it really changed my life.
On a famous 2007 performance in his home city that involved wrapping himself and a tree in plastic
I said, OK, there is no gallery and there is no museum, so why should I wait for them? Why don't I just go to the main street of my city and just do the performance? Just go and connect with a real audience. So I just went to the main street, and I start to talk to the people, and ... I wrapped myself with that tree.
The government brought that tree from Australia, and it was affecting the native trees. So I start to do that performance to show the people that thing is affecting all of us. So, immediately, they get engaged with me, they start — you know, they thought I'm crazy in the beginning.
But when I start to tell them about the story, and the people start to complain about that tree, and the people start to talk, I realize that's the spark. And that's what encouraged me to keep doing these kind of things, until now.
On his larger-than-life replicas of stamps that are used for actual documents
I'm part of the system, you know. And I'm using that stamp in my daily job, and I know how powerful is that stamp in our lives, if you know what they mean. So that stamp is the symbol of bureaucracy, yeah. When you have a baby, you should stamp that you have the baby. When you go into marriage you should have stamps. Even if you need a vacation you need that kind of stamp. So I think that's what's killing the dreams of the youth here.
There is a big, huge gap between the young generation and the elderly, now. And I think the bureaucracy is one of the most important reasons who create that huge gap between the two generations. So I'm putting that as an artwork which will become a kind of platform where the people can come and start to talk about it again.
On a work that addresses his connection to the Sept. 11 attacks
That painting, I call it "Pause" because it's related to 9/11. You know, in that moment, I think the whole world were like someone pushed that button: pause. And the 19 who were in the airplane, most of them are from Saudi Arabia, and two of them, I was studying with them. They were with me in the same schools. ... They were with me in the high schools, and I was wondering why did they choose this path while we have the same knowledge. We were in the same school, we were sitting next together, and I don't know why did they choose that path. It was a crazy thing, to be honest.
On the prospect of censorship in his home country
To be honest, [I'm] not [censored] yet, but I'm trying to be careful with these things. You know, with the social media, I think no one now can block anyone or not letting anyone to show what he want. But I'm a little bit worried. I can't do that sort of show — the one I just did in London — in Saudi Arabia. I think it would not be allowed, to be honest.
On Saudi audiences' reactions to his work
When I started doing my artworks in the beginning, it was a little bit tough. I'm coming from a text culture — I mean, my culture is based on a text [the Quran] and it's hard, it's a little bit hard for someone like me came from this kind of references, and I want to change that text culture to a visual thing, because the people here they didn't used to the visual or to the images because it was prohibited. ...
You know, I have another work, I call it "The Path." It's a short movie with some photographs. It's another performance. It's hard. The people — it was hard for them to accept it, because you are changing something from text to a visual thing. And they said, "How could you do that?"
But now ... the people here in Saudi Arabia, I mean, a lot of audience are asking me, after they saw the show in London, they are asking me to do a show in Saudi Arabia. And that's what I was waiting for. And I think I'm going to show some of the artworks, and I will keep developing this, and I will keep encouraging the people to understand what I'm trying to say. I think it's a little bit hard mission, but I should do it.