x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saudi army officer's post-9/11 art metaphor

Abdulnasser Gharem, a Saudi army officer and artist whose installation is currently on display at the Traffic gallery in Dubai, offers up a powerful metaphor for the post-9/11 security backlash.

Concrete Block VII, an installation by Abdulnasser Gharem, is suggestive of the concrete barriers that have been erected around embassies, major hotels, and other perceived terrorist targets.
Concrete Block VII, an installation by Abdulnasser Gharem, is suggestive of the concrete barriers that have been erected around embassies, major hotels, and other perceived terrorist targets.

Abdulnasser Gharem is a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army.

He is also a protest artist, and his paintings and installations raise a querulous voice against the direction his government is taking.

Politicised works tread a fine line between overstatement and oversimplification, slipping too easily into the crass, the obvious and the opportunistic. In the wake of the collective hysteria following the September 11 attacks, and the apparently unending conflict they unleashed, the compulsion among artists, and everyone else, to comment is understandable.

The temptation to add one's own voice to the clamour can be irresistible. But whether those shouting have anything intelligent or original to say is, of course, another matter. Gharem doesn't always get it right, but some of his attempts are noteworthy, particularly when he sticks to working with what he knows: in his case, the country he lives in, and whose armed forces he serves.

His work takes a stand, quite literally, and his message is at times powerful and compelling. His eight-foot-high installation, Concrete Block VII, is a bold attempt to critique the security backlash in the seething cauldron of his homeland. And his work is all the braver, given the reactionary nature of the politics he's resisting: both terrorism and autocracy.

His giant alabaster roadblocks are suggestive of the concrete barriers springing up around embassies, major hotels and other perceived targets everywhere in the world. They are, in turn, redolent of other concrete "facts on the ground" that have arisen in recent history; for instance, the perimeter wall Israel has built to keep out the Palestinians, and by extension, the Berlin Wall that was an iron curtain dividing Eastern Europe from the West, and that came crumbling down with much of communism in 1989.

Making up the surface of Gharem's relief are hundreds of embossed impressions from his official Saudi army identification: the rubber stamp he uses countless times each day, day in day out, to validate the endless security documents, intelligence documents, government orders and classified paperwork that cross his desk.

"This is the stamp we use for everything in our daily work," he says. "My idea was to try to make certain points, but in a careful way. I don't want to clash with others."

His self-effacing manner lends a modest charm to his earnest, determined effort to say what he means. But his work is anything but reticent.

"After 9/11, we saw these concrete blocks springing up outside US embassies and other buildings all over the place.

"We also see a particular kind of injunction becoming commonplace outside new towers and developments under construction in the Arab world.

"These will typically be warning signs, detour signs, caution or hazard signs.

"Does concrete protect you? We should be educating people, giving them opportunities, not building these barriers. My message is simple: don't put your trust in concrete."

That message is deployed verbatim to punctuate the endless serial numbers repeating themselves across the surface of his work. In a satirical touch, there are also snatches of quotation taken from the speeches of the assassinated Kennedy brothers, picked out in black-ink detail.

Gharem's is a stand against endless meaningless bureaucracy and red tape, against Orwellian state machinery bulldozing individual freedom.

Elsewhere, Gharem's literalist paintings of burning aircraft, or of Barack Obama caught in televised static, are less successful; there's a danger of fatuousness here, where the works become all too two-dimensional. We don't, perhaps, need art to be attempting this kind of comment-loaded journalese.

But when his installations are able to harness a metaphoric depth charge, making a bold point through more subtly crafted and sophisticated means, the effect is far more powerful.

 

Traffic, Umm Suqeim Rd, Al Quoz 4, Dubai, until December 10.