Dutch lawyer opens Saudi art gallery in Amsterdam


On the sixth floor of an office building in the center of the Dutch capital, Amsterdam is a small gallery dedicated to Saudi art.

Greenbox has one million followers on Facebook, making it the most popular Dutch museum online, and it was founded by Dutch man Aarnout Helb.

Despite the museum’s online popularity he says visitors in person are rare.

He said his inspiration for founding the museum was to stamp out the Islamophobia he believed was rife in The Netherlands following the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers and the assassination of a Dutch filmmaker and journalist, Theo Van Gogh.

“Under influence of 9/11 and later how that affected young Muslims in Holland, we had this issue of murder of Theo Van Gogh. There was a kind of Islamophobia here in Holland,” said Helb.

“I thought if you have artists from Saudi Arabia, they may help you navigate in the darkness, you know, show you who they truly are.”

Helb founded Greenbox museum in the summer of 2008. He has since rejected financial
sponsorship from wealthy Saudis because he did not want any form of censorship issues to stifle his private collection.

Helb has never visited Saudi Arabia, but collects his work online.

“I thought let’s read a bit into the Koran and then there was a piece in the Koran, it’s in the second Sura of the Cow, and there is a yellow cow which is a pleasure to see. And I said, well, a pleasure to see, that’s something that has to do with a positive emotion, which has to do with visual art, and I went googling for the story. Actually, I was looking at what the religious significance of the story would be, but instead of that I found that the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater had made an artwork about this yellow cow which is a pleasure to see,” he told Reuters.

The Greenbox Museum also has artwork by Saudi artist, Abdulnasser Gharem, whose ‘The Path’ (Siraat) photograph is currently on show at Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

The artist drew his inspiration from a tragic accident in the 1980s in southern Saudi Arabia when villagers seeking refuge from a flash flood were killed.
The artist repeatedly spray painted the word Siraat on the bridge which comes from the Koran and refers to ‘God’s path.’

In his work the Twin Towers, the towers were painted showing the moment the plane crashed into the second building, Helb described how the artist was pressured to alter the work.

“Some diplomats and officials didn’t like it and the artist made a kind of a performance out of it that he removed the aeroplane from the second trade tower, we shouldn’t talk too much about it because it was really nice he did, and it was a serious work of art. And then he painted a third tower like it was camouflage, so are you now happy?” added Helb.

Greenbox Museum is open to the public from Wednesday to Friday 1-5 pm and it also features works of art by Nasser Al-Saleem, Ayman Yossri Daydban, Sami Al Turki, Mana Malluh, Reem Al-Faisal and Hala Ali.

Yossri’s work has exhibited through the Gulf, in the UK, Italy, Germany and across the Middle East, he is a Palestinian living in Jeddah and his work is characterised by a sense of dislocation.

Mullah had an exhibition at The British Museum last year called: ‘Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam,’ she has also exhibited across Europe and frequently in her native Saudi Arabia.

The art scene in Saudi Arabia has exploded in recent years, sending artists such as Ahmed Mater - whose ‘Yellow Cow’ is exhibited at the Greenbox - to prominence.