x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The sum of Abdulnasser Gharem, soldier artist

A thorough new book charts the emergence of a remarkable Saudi artistic talent.

Men At Work IV.
Men At Work IV.

Abdulnasser Gharem was noticeably absent on the eve of the Dubai auction that would generate US$842,500 (Dh3.09 million) in sales earlier this year. His absence, it should be noted, was entirely excused. As well as being one of the region's foremost artists, Gharem is a lieutenant-colonel in the Saudi army and he was on duty in Riyadh at the time.

Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival is a new monograph that excavates the artist's divergent life and, in the process, chronicles Saudi Arabia's rise to recognition on the contemporary art scene.

Written by artist-author Henry Hemming (whose most recent book Together was reviewed in these pages earlier this year), the publication is an Edge of Arabia (EoA) release, an education initiative founded by the British artist Stephen Stapleton in 2003 that nurtures and promotes the kingdom's newest talent.

In Message/Messenger, the installation piece that broke all previous auction records for Saudi art, Gharem recreated the gilded dome of a mosque and, using the pointed crescent moon from the top of the structure, raised it precariously on one side. Beneath that he placed a dove in flight - evoking a primitive trap that would fall on the bird if disturbed.

Art of Survival hinges on the energy incubated by the Shattah collective, a group of artists including Gharem and Ahmed Mater who have carved out a fresh, vocal art practice in the green Asir mountains of southern Saudi.

This monograph details Shattah's recent attempts to find a more interrogative, critical practice that could still get past Saudi's censors. Interestingly, Hemming refers to Gharem's use of the media as a measure of how far the artist could push the boundaries of his work.

When a bridge collapsed after one of Asir's frequent floods and washed away a nearby village, the artist took this largely unreported event as inspiration and, together with other Shattah artists, spent three days writing "siraat" in Arabic (meaning "the way") on what remained of the road. A ghostly video documentation of the piece - shot at night, with goats wandering around on the dilapidated, spray-painted highway - remains one of his most stirring artworks. That the Saudi press and culture authorities responded to it cordially gave Gharem the ground he felt he needed to push his work even further.

Art of Survival was launched at London's Frieze art fair last month and will be available in the UAE at Abu Dhabi Art from November 16. At 196 pages, it is hefty yet concise; simple in design yet thorough in its analysis of Gharem's oeuvre. Anecdotes colour Hemming's narrative, and there's a nervous excitement at work here - a sense that a fresh page in art history is being fashioned.

Without formal training, aside from a few years of art classes in secondary school - an educational institution from which two of his classmates would go on to be hijackers in the September 11 attacks - Gharem is an uninhibited voice to whom this considered publication does justice.

Christopher Lord is The National's arts writer.