I met Abdulnasser Gharem three years ago when working at Edge of Arabia, the nonprofit cultural initiative he co-founded with Stephen Stapleton and Ahmed Mater.
This year we sat down during Frieze to discuss his latest exhibition, Ricochet and his latest adventure: the Riyadh based Gharem Studio.
His brother Ajlan Gharem, artist and co-founder of the studio, also joined us to discuss his work Paradise Has Many Gates.
Elena Scarpa: The first thing I wanted to ask you is what is the message behind Ricochet, your latest show.
Abdulnasser Gharem: I think the most important thing about this show is actually the timing. With what’s going on right now is the Arab World, with these politics and propaganda that want to stop the public’s voice. I think that we’re trying to give a chance to the young artists to show their ideas. This generation wants to share their thoughts, they want to engage with other people and they want to get feedback without any middle man. The reason why I founded Gharem Studio in Riyadh is because the city is conservative and there’s no chance to practice your art, to raise your voice. The studio became a place where the kids come to share their ideas and talk together freely. After two years of living together in the studio we realized we had something to show to the people so we came up with this exhibition in London, I think it’s the right time and also I really like the space at the Asia House.
ES: Was it difficult to find the actual space to open the studio in Riyadh?
ANG: It took me one year to find it. I was afraid of the neighborhood’s reaction to be honest, it’s a little bit hard, I thought they might kick us out. But finally we found a place that was a little bit away from the city centre. The reaction was ok.
ES: Do you go to the studio everyday? Is this your full time life now?
ANG: Myself and the artists are there everyday living there: we work, we share ideas and we meet new people. We have a lot of visitors especially from Europe. The Studio is not open to the public yet, but they can get in touch with us and we can arrange to meet them there. As for artists that want to come and work with us, we have to make sure that they’re talented and that they are passionate about their work. It’s a place to produce the artworks, not to show them. We help them with the production by giving them the space and the equipment.
ES: Do you think you’ll be able to do a Gharem Studio show in Saudi at one point?
ANG: At the show’s opening yesterday at Asia House you could see that Njoud Alanbari (Ed. Note. one of the artists of the Gharem Studio), came with her parents. If we get the support from the parents and from the people that share our ideas I’m sure we will be able to do it. We have different reaction now, people are happy about what we are doing. Since we started together to work with Edge of Arabia a lot of time has passed and the work has affected people, they support us now. The mentality changed, people understand that art is important, it can bring a message not only for them but also for their kids. There is some art eduction in Saudi Arabia but it’s not enough.
ES: Going back to Ricochet, could you tell me a bit more about the big stamp painting that is part of the show?
ANG: The painting itself is called Ricochet and with it I am trying to represent what is going on in the Middle East, there are a lot of wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen. That painting comes from what I am seeing everyday, the fact that politics try to divide the society everyday between Shia and Sunni, as an artist I am looking at this from an humanitarian perspective. I’m trying to protect the heritage and the culture, put the people together. I’m trying to say that if you shoot someone it might get back to you. I’m encouraging people to see things from another perspective, don’t just listen and follow. You have to come up with your own idea, your own conclusion about what you hear. Especially for the young people who maybe don’t have the chance to travel a lot, it’s really important for them to make their own idea, they can’t just follow what they hear.
ES: Your brother Ajlan is the co-founder of Gharem Studio, that your family is involved in this project.
ANG: Ajlan is also the middle man between me and all these young people, he understands them much better and, as you know, he has been working with us since the beginning so he knows everything and he has real experience. He is also one of the artists in this Ricochet show.
ES: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the use of Social Media. Both your and the Studio’s accounts on Instagram are really active.
ANG: People follow us from all over the world but it’s more active and effective in Saudi Arabia. Social Media are the only way to communicate with people, if you want to see their work you go on their Instagram. If you want to know them you get in touch with them through these media. People see your works, you start chatting with them. There are not a lot of social activities like openings, exhibitions where you can meet people so that is most of the time the only way to meet people. Our contacts all start online from Social Media and then the artists send us portfolios, we don’t have standard procedures to get to know people, we are not a commercial gallery so people can just get in touch with us to show their works.
ES: Ajlan, could you tell me how your work was produced?
AJLAN GHAREM: First of all I designed the cage and then we went to the desert in Saudi to build it. I used the same steel that is now being used by some European countries to build fences to stop the refugees coming in. What I built is not a proper cage. Sometimes I don’t know if I should say that I built a cage that looks like a Mosque or a Mosque that looks like a cage. I had to do it quickly because I had to take it down as soon as we were done with filming the video. We did it in the desert in the middle of nowhere. Filming the video took me a full day, but all together the build up, the shooting and the deinstall took me two weeks. The message behind this work is something that everyone I know feels, that’s why when they saw it they didn’t reject the idea, they all said that they feel what I am trying to express. The old generation has beliefs more than knowledge but this generation has more knowledge than beliefs. The old generation is ok with everything, they believe in what they were taught and they’re fine with it but this generation is trying to balance the knowledge and the beliefs so they’re trying to find something reasonable to believe in. As you saw in the video there are kids. How are they going to be? They’re going to be better than us with more knowledge.
ES: Who else is performing in the video?
AG: There are actors, artists and some of my friends. There were some real actors, they did a real performance, I needed people that knew how to act. Then there was my brother Abdulnasser and also Shaweesh. The whole Gharem Studio worked on the making of this video and this is what the Studio is about: being together, sharing ideas and everyone contributing in each other’s works. They all contributed in my work with their own thoughts. We’re a community and we all share idea, this is the main aim of the Gharem Studio, we live together, we travel together.