The Surrealism of Saudi Arabian Contemporary Art

Ordinarily, Ajlan Gharem would be wearing Saudi Arabia’s traditional men’s clothing — the strictly white thobe that, like a graduation gown, covers the body from neck to ankle.

But on a recent evening when he met with SF Weekly, Gharem dressed like the working artist that he is: a purple jacket with rolled-up sleeves, a blue shirt with spots across its fabric, brown pants with a colorful pattern, and green sneakers. Not the green of lawns, either, but the fun, bright green of a Jell-O mold. Gharem and his older brother, Abdulnasser — Saudi Arabia’s best-known contemporary artist — run Gharem Studio in Riyadh, the country’s capital, where they are leading a movement to change their nation’s acceptance of modern art.

Saudi Arabia’s conservatism, and its traditional religious strictures, have hindered the birth of a widespread art scene. Like African-American dancers and jazz musicians who went to France in the 1920s, Saudi artists are finding success outside the country at the same time they are — slowly but surely — broadening the audience for their work inside its borders. Ajlan and Abdulnasser are two of 15 artists in “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia,” which opened Aug. 11 at Minnesota Street Project.

“Discussion between the artwork — not just the artists — and the audience is kind of a new idea in Saudi Arabia,” Ajlan Gharem says. “This is the dialogue that we need. Not just someone who stands there and says, ‘This is good,’ and that’s it. This is another part of the artwork — the dialogue between the audience and the artwork and the artists. It’s creating a space of knowledge.”

“We have our studio, but we don’t do shows,” he adds. “We do education. We do residencies. We help other artists produce their artwork in show, like here in America and London. We’re trying to create a platform in Saudi Arabia for our [artists]. Education is missing in Saudi. There’s nothing. If you’re in school, you only have one art class in each week. We started this not just for us but every artist in Saudi Arabia.”

“GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia” is everything contemporary art can be: funny, damning, esoteric, poetic, provocative. Not every work resonates at a high level — especially if an art-goer approaches the work without context — but among the pieces that connect instantly, even without initial explanation, is Sarab (Mirage), a black-and-white video work by the “calligraffiti” artist named Nugamshi that shows him splashing reams of crude oil in lieu of paint against a glass wall in the Riyadh desert. The outlining of thick and sparse letters is both a rhythmic performance piece and a visual triumph, where the tall shapes — almost as tall at Nugamshi — are like the creations of Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline.

A little information goes a long way, though. Nugamshi is critiquing the world’s — and Saudi Arabia’s — historical dependence on oil, and the environmental price that people pay for that reliance. His underlying message is both local and universal, and in another era — say that of 1970s or even ’80s — Saudi Arabia would have undoubtedly prohibited his work. But this is 2016, and a well-connected agency, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, is sponsoring “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia” on a tour across the United States as a way to create what the center’s program director is calling “a platform for alternative dialogue and cultural empathy between communities.”

Empathy can be generated through humor, as with the work of the collective called Telfaz11, whose videos at Minnesota Street Project include one with actors in their 20s and 30s portraying Saudis visiting a U.S. bar. Islam prohibits the drinking of alcohol, but one of the Saudi characters — trying badly to fit in — toasts his American cohorts with a shot of booze. As everyone drinks, he sneakily throws the liquor over his shoulders. When a busty blonde woman passes out, he uses his hands to pump her chest (through a pillow). A Saudi friend arrives onto the scene and says aloud, “Goddamn Saudis. You can’t be left alone with anybody.” On the exhibit’s opening night, alcohol was served on the second floor, and it made for a slightly surreal scene: Open drinking of beer and wine amid artwork from the birthplace of Islam, with some pieces critiquing the way people follow the rituals and outlines of organized religion.

Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates is centered around a small mosque made of the exact kind of steel that also produces cages and fences, like the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay or the European border fortifications that are designed to prevent Middle East migrants from crossing over. People freely enter Gharem’s mosque, a 33-by-21-foot structure complete with steel dome; steel minaret that lights up in green; and a sound system that, five times a day, issues a call to prayer made of voices from different Muslim-majority countries. Minnesota Street Project has images of the piece, but not the piece itself, which does appear at a parallel exhibit that opened this summer at Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art. Inside Gharem’s Texas iteration, which is in the museum’s parking lot, visiting Muslims are using it as a practicing mosque, even as secular art-goers crowd inside, too. Some visitors, Gharem says, have done yoga inside his art mosque. Times are changing: In Saudi Arabia, about 70 percent of its citizens are under the age of 30; Gharem himself is 30.

“It’s global, and it’s not just about Islam,” he says about his art mosque. “It doesn’t represent the religion — it represents religiosity. There are so many young people, and when we look back to the older generation, we see them as so good in worshipping — but we don’t belong to these types of things. There should be something that we need to get to. For us, we’re trying to find those beliefs — [something] that matches our level of knowledge. With knowledge, everything is open. Books, the internet, everything. The issue now is that we are stuck in between these two things: Getting free of that old, traditional mentality, and trying to create a new level of beliefs and level of speech.”

Asked about specifically using a mosque to make his artistic point, Gharem laughs: “I’m Muslim, and I can’t use a church.”

In his Depersonalization photo and video series, Dhafer Al Shehri captures the beauty, freneticism, and movement of mass praying in Saudi Arabia, where individual expression is sublimated into an orchestrated expression of faith. From Al Shehri’s use of distance and cropping, the prayers resemble an expanse of synchronized movement — pointillism that comes alive every few frames. In a room across the way from Al Shehri’s work, Abdulnasser Gharem has a haunting video work called The Path that requires an understanding of a tragic Saudi event. A few decades ago, in an arid southwestern area that borders the Red Sea, a large group of people sought shelter from a severe rainstorm on a bridge that subsequently collapsed and killed them. In The Path, Abdulnasser Gharem revisits the remains of the structure and paints it with the Arabic word for path: Al Siraat.

The exhibit features four female artists whose work is anything but timid. In her video piece called Elementary 240, Njoud Alanbari re-creates murals — placed near Saudi schools for girls — which use stern wording and images of swords to warn the students never to take drugs, emulate Jews, travel abroad by themselves, or listen to forbidden music. (According to Alanbari, who filmed young Saudi girls playing and socializing around her re-created wall, it is private citizens and not the Saudi government who put them up.)

In her video Saudi Automobile, Sarah Abu Abdallah paints a wrecked car in a brilliant pink — a commentary on the fact that women still aren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Just last year, Saudi women got the right to vote in elections. Change is happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though maybe not at the pace preferred by those who attended the opening night of “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia.” The night featured music and male dancers who moved around in traditional outfits that had untraditional images of Bob Marley and Coca Cola bottles on them — a reference to artist Ahaad Alamoudi’s art-video critique of consumer culture in Saudi Arabia.

Abdulnasser Gharem, 42, went to high school with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center. At a time when Islam and the Middle East have become woven into the U.S. presidential elections, and when Saudi Arabia is widely associated with 9/11, Wahhabism, and what could be called “backwardness,” “GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia” is an island of reflection where dancing, drinking, and commingling are encouraged — and where a different side of the country is evident from the moment you walk into the building.

“GENERA#ION: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia”Through Sept. 6, at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., S.F. Free;415-243-0825 or

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