For many centuries, the Western world has dominated the world of arts and culture. For this reason, the Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem who is currently the highest-selling living Gulf artist can be seen as a breath of fresh air. Gharem’s work differs greatly from that which is commonly seen in our galleries as it features symbols of Islam and the Arab world. Having served in the military for 23 years, it is not surprising that the themes of war and politics also feature in many of his artworks.
#1: PAUSE II, 2016: Gharem’s response to 9/11
One of his most personal artworks is titled Pause II and conveys the artist’s response to 9/11. The ‘stamp painting’ depicts the twin towers in a way which resembles the pause symbol (II). On the edges, one can see two yellow lines which curve inward at the top. These lines represent road markings and are of great importance to the overall meaning of the artwork. After the 9/11 attack, Gharem had found out that two of the hijackers had been his classmates. This shocked him and made him reflect on the way that people who have grown up in the same environment and have had the same education, can take extremely different paths.
As seen above, Gharem’s artworks contain hidden messages and he comments on this as he explains: ‘That’s one of my concepts, to let the viewers to make an effort so they will discover the artwork more’. In addition to this, the director general of Sharjah Museums Manal Ataya spoke to The National and said that the audience must get physically closer to Gharem’s painting. ‘This act of getting closer to the work to decipher these messages is a metaphor for the importance of taking time to see the finer print so to speak in fully understanding the larger picture’.
#2: Ricochet, 2015: Juxtaposition of war and peace
Using the same technique, Gharem produced Ricochet, an overwhelmingly large three-part artwork. Upon first seeing the painting, the audience is left speechless and overcome with emotion as they witness something simultaneously beautiful and frightening. The Islamic art and mosaic stamps are juxtaposed with a fighter jet which seems to uproot the beauty surrounding it. As in PAUSE II, this artwork features numerous hidden messages. For this reason, the audience must pay close attention to the contents and composition of the painting in order to grasp its meaning. Gharem explains that the painting is meant to represent the ceiling of a mosque: a place associated with peace, hope, and faith. This is starkly juxtaposed with a fighter jet which is so often seen destroying the homes and lives of people in the Arab world. Thus, the artwork is a comment on the never-ending wars and the way they shatter peace.
#3: The Stamp (Moujaz), 2013: A comment on sharia law
Gharem’s 2015 artwork The Stamp (Moujaz) comments on the excessive control and religious restrictions of Saudi Arabia. The word moujaz translates to ‘permitted’ and this is the word which is depicted in the centre of the stamp. Surrounding this, one can read the phrase ‘In accordance with the sharia law’ written in English and Arabic. It is important to note that the large size of the stamp can be seen as a symbol of its authority and power. Furthermore, speaking to BBC, the artist commented on his work as he said, ‘When you are born you get a stamp, when you get married, even if you need a vacation you need someone to stamp a paper for you… these stamps are delaying our dreams, delaying our goals, wasting our life’.
Gharem is aware of the fact that many people in his home country may criticise his work. Subsequently, he notes that it is for this reason that he creates such beautiful pieces: ‘I try to produce the thing in a way that will make it beautiful, even though the message is a little bit hard. When they see the piece they will be in love with it and see I respect everybody’. Abdulnasser Gharem’s main goal is to help bring about change and inspire people to think more deeply about the world around them.
All images and videos have been taken from Abdulnasser Gharem’s website https://abdulnassergharem.com/.