Do yourself a favour, go see a point of view from Saudi Arabia that’s mainly ignored by the media these days. Pause by Abdulnasser Gharem is at LACMA. Rush to it before it closes on July 2, 2017. Here is why…
September 11, 2001 changed the world as we knew it, for all of us. And here it is, creeping in, the “us” which goes with, or rather against, “them”.
The self-perpetuating lack of understanding feeding only more violence. That knee-jerk reaction of protecting ourselves by closing off when we are in a state of shock and feeling under attack. We can’t begin to understand what happened and is still going on to this day…
Don’t you wish we could hit Rewind and Stop? Erasing the bad dream…
Instead, hit Pause at LACMA and look intently at Abdulnasser Gharem ‘ s powerful perspective.
Gharem is from Saudi Arabia. He is a Muslim, an Arab, a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army and he discovered that two of the 9/11 hijackers were old classmates.
What do you do when the World Trade Center collapses, when the world you think you knew becomes fractured right in the middle?
Gharem turned to seeking knowledge and studying art, teaching himself via the Internet to express what he felt then and now, trying to make sense of our post 9/11 world.
Still in the army, he tries to make a difference with art and educational projects to link East and West, opening minds instead of closing them. Trying to show there are independent paths out there, that it is possible to resist brainwashing while still getting the rubber stamp that runs his country.
With Hemisphere, Gharem illustrates this prevailing ambivalence. There is faith – symbolised by the characteristic green half dome taken from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina – and there is warfare – the other half of the sculpture being a late Islamic-style warrior helmet.
Yet you sense that the neat separation between the two is a visual artifice to make us understand how distorted reality actually is. Meaning, nothing is so clear-cut in Saudi Arabia.
There is similar emphasis on a clear separation in Road to Mecca (2014) where Non-Muslims are signed to exit.
And again in Pause itself.
Pause presents the Twin Towers in shades of pale grey but it is not your usual oil painting. This is stamp-painting, composed of minute rubber stamps, referencing the overwhelming Saudi bureaucracy, “these stamps (…) delaying our dreams, delaying our goals, wasting our life” as Gharem says.
The air and smoke plumes around the towers are made of Arabic character stamps while the towers are made of various letter stamps from the Roman alphabet. Let’s Pause on that…
Again, a clear separation which should not be…and once you’ve noticed this, you will pick up on all the raised up phrases, written back to front and right to left. You will spend time reading these fine prints, pausing and pondering on the divide left to bridge. On the importance of knowledge as a form of resistance…
Gharem cleverly uses rubber stamps as a material carrying both social and artistic meaning. Yet, when he makes that same stamp a subject (in The Stamp), the emphasis shifts to what’s granted approval, forcing a healthy questioning of validity and authority.
And then come In Transit and Ricochet, mixing the imagery of an ignited plane turned bomb with the sheer beauty of traditional Islamic motifs, all unraveling in an explosion of colors.
Gharem vividly links our 9/11 memories with very traditional forms of Islamic art such as arabesques and muqarna motifs found in architectural vaulted ceilings. True to the cultural influences of his native Saudi Arabia, he delivers a visual punch, striking from a distance and revealing many additional layers as you get closer.
The visual pull seems to give and take. To me, the rubbery texture is the mitigating effect. The matte effect of the rubber stamps amortizes the viewer’s sensations from the visual blow of the images. At the same time, the reverberating Islamic motifs almost physically shake you to look back in.
I think of the letterpress keys painfully assembled on these monumental canvas, forcing attention to the raised up fine prints. They are not easy to read backwards but Gharem’s entire body of work is not meant to be easy.
It’s about reflection and reflexion. It’s about trying to read backwards. About trying to look in the mirror and put yourself in other people’s shoes, life, beliefs and culture. Trying to see the world we live in not simply through one set of values.
It’s about access to and acceptance of knowledge to identify the dangers of encountered paths, with art being one small conduit to give change a chance.
Thank you, Abdulnasser Gharem. I did not know your art until last week.
Now, I am never going to forget your name and I wish your co-initiative Edge of Arabia all the success it deserves.
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.