Saudi soldier as artist: Abdulnasser Gharem’s message, ‘Peace, but with security’

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At a recent auction in Dubai, Christie’s auctioned a piece of installation art for $842,500—more than eight times its high pre-sale estimate of $100,000. The packed hall erupted into applause when the winning bid was announced.

Apparently this was the highest price ever paid at an auction for the work of a living Arab artist.

The piece of art in question is a sculpture entitled Messenger/Message. It is a three-meter-wide wood and copper dome symbolizing the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. A small dove hides beneath its vast diameter. The body of the dome and the rim are decorated with floral relief.

The creator of this magnificence is Abdulnasser Gharem, a leading contemporary Saudi artist and co-founder of Edge of Arabia.

Edge of Arabia is an internationally recognized, pioneering art project that has shed new light on the largely unknown contemporary art and culture of Saudi Arabia. On April 19, it auctioned off six works of art at Christie’s Dubai sale of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art. Together, the six works sold for $1.05 million, some eight times their combined pre-sale estimates of $135,000.The proceedings from the auction will go toward the expansion of Edge of Arabia’s education program as well as art workshops in schools and universities in Saudi Arabia

Paradoxically, the messenger of peace is a soldier. Not only is Mr. Gharem a practicing conceptual artist, he is also a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabia’s army.

Mr. Gharem was born 1973, in Khamis Mushait, where he lives and works today. He studied at the Al-Miftaha Arts Village in Abha along with his friend Ahmed Mater, and is now recognized as the pioneer of conceptual art in Saudi Arabia. His work features in important collections including the British Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The artist is adamant about his commitment to Saudi Arabia and said: “Move abroad? No way. My art is related to the people living in Saudi Arabia. I am living in one of the most interesting countries in the world. Why move? I want to show you what has happened in this country. This is my mission.”

Unlike many other famous artists, Mr. Gharem does not isolate himself in a studio.

He says, “My studio is where I can find people. When I see the opportunity I go. That is my way of thinking about art. That’s why usually I do not use a studio, I just sleep there but my work is in the old villages, the streets, where I talk to the people. The street is where you can find the behavior and the talk of the people. If you want to know something just go to the streets.”

Evidently, Mr. Gharem found the dove of peace in the streets, and the world will find it in his art.

(Umita Venkataraman of Al Arabia can be reached at: [email protected])