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Reconsider Reality: A Profile of Abdulnasser Gharem

Abdulnasser Gharem stands out among Saudi Arabia’s first batch of modern artists for his intensely personal take on concept art that combines the best of his unusual mix of professions – lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army and conceptual artist. We profile him here, taking you through just some of his works. All pictures reproduced in this article are copyrighted to Abdulnasser Gharem. We thank him for his time, and for sharing his pictures with us so generously.

There is a rugged, hands-on, no-nonsense mood to Abdulnasser Gharem’s work and a thoughtful languor to his posture. He is a man of few words, a man of his word, more a street-person than a studio person, and more a telephone person than an email person. He has an almost chauvinistic disregard for frills and formalities, and is completely without airs when it comes to work, making no bones about his availability – any time is ‘good enough’ when it comes to work, and for every query regarding work, he will reply with an artless but reassuring ‘It will be done’. He is factual without being drab.


Facts are his playthings. For his art as well, he works with them, not against them. As it is, he can never stray too far from them, because the street is his studio, his canvas, and more often than not, also the site of his final oeuvre. The street – the outdoors, the buzz of life, the racing irregular pulse of reality, its ugliness, its imperfections, the stories of the people walking  it, the collective energy of their minds, even the stories of trees lining its pavements.

Being creative is sometimes just a different way to present things. In his performance entitled ‘Flora and Fauna’, he draws attention to the decision of planting Australian imported Cornocarpus Erectus trees along pavements in his native Abha.

How does he tap into these stories? He uses them as premises, forward-tracking to possibilities and solutions. He sees a situation as a node of possibility, leading to something. By nature, his artistic consciousness  hungers for the next level of ideas and thought. “There is a direct canal of truth between the artist and his work. When he creates a work, he knows if it’s the real thing, or if it isn’t. Your dissatisfaction is the barometer. You keep looking elsewhere and ahead unless you feel completely satisfied with a work. There came a point when I had ceased to be satisfied with landscapes. I needed the force of ideas to quench my thirst.” Creation, for him, is the intersection of the artist’s consciousness and the natural ,uncontrolled , and uncontrollable current of life encountered ‘in the field’. It is a temporary appropriation of this current. The act of creation, for him, is a testing zone for the meat of ideas, the mettle of the self and the veracity of solutions. It brings him closer to reality, rather, it’s a way of dealing with reality. Beautifying it? Not at all. Perhaps, rationalizing it or contemplating it with striking creativity.

Being creative is sometimes just a different way to present things. In his performance entitled ‘Flora and Fauna’, he draws attention to the decision of planting Australian imported Cornocarpus Erectus trees along pavements in his native Abha.

He builds his creative solutions with a confidence in his experimental procedures and a faith in his human participants that stems from an understanding of man and the world that is thorough enough to command them when needed but also compassionate enough to speak to them in softer whispers. His strength is his knack for spotting creatively exploitable situations, and locating metaphors in the extremely real. Wedding the two isn’t always easy, and it takes a special kind of persistence to scrub with your mind in the heavens without giving in to the banality of scrubbing itself. This is precisely his core – finding a passage to the abstract through the real, striking a balance between the literal and the metaphoric, and moving between the two with tact. In his most powerful works, ‘Al-Siraat’ (The Path) and ‘Manzoa’ (Sold), he takes situations at their tail-end and turns then around for the ‘performance’.

A man, a bridge and a spray can: the result ‘Al-Siraat’ (The Path). The bridge is located in the Tihama region, and only the salvaged half of it remains. This smooth cobalt strip just stops short, with a ravine several meters below. The performance was documented on video and in pictures. Just vestiges remain, infinitely replicable and infinitely meaningful, the real paint has probably been blanched by the sun.

In ‘Al-Siraat’ (The Path), his first work, he chose as his subject an abandoned bridge in the Tihama strip. It is a bridge with a history, probably undocumented, but carried on through legend and word-of-mouth. In 1982, a group of people from the village, seeking refuge from a flash flood, clambered atop this bridge, trusting the toughness and surety of concrete that seemed invincible. They were deceived, the bridge collapsed, and they all lost their lives. Gharem saw this bridge not as a relic of a buried, half-forgotten tragedy, but as a potential metaphor for choice, deception and direction. Starting with his brother, and recruiting a lot of eager volunteers along the way, he inscribed the word ‘Al-Siraat’ all over the strip of bridge, several centimeters apart. The flow of the writing is in opposite directions on the two partitions of the bridge, and from a distance, it has the look of ripples, like the waters that inundated it all those years ago. With an informed choice of scene, undercut by the poignancy of local legend and group tragedy, he tailors the situational in the service of a metaphor for larger human concerns.


Don’t trust the concrete, he says. For beyond the concrete lies the abyss. The angle of thought and the angle of visuality  converge into a metaphor for life itself. Man is a speck in the universe, faced with a multitude of choices, with no cues as to what lies ahead. So many roads lead outward,and they all look the same. Perhaps, the only guidance can come from within. Faith, though abstract, is more reliable than concrete.

No matter what the situation, hope can always be found. We just need someone to show us the way.

For the performance, ‘Manzoa’ (‘to be removed’), he chose from his immediate locale, another situation with the stamp of oblivion on it.  In the Hijaz region, a village in the centre of a town under development had been declared ‘Manzoa’ overnight by a government ruling. Like the precipice of the bridge, the lives of  its inhabitants, poor village folk mostly, had just stopped short. What is possibly artistic in this sad finale?  What possibly artistic dimension can be wrought from it?

It is never curtain call until the action can be turned around.  Gharem arrives at the scene with a final twist of plot. Sometimes, the aesthetics of a situation are not physical but emotional. An imbalance of emotions, values, an upsetting of human feelings, a violation of rights can be just as ugly and inharmonious as an imbalance of colours on a palette. When it is so, the task befalling the artist is to restore the balance and harmony of emotions where he finds it amiss. (Gharem’s tagline on his website is ‘Restored Behaviour’) What are his tools? What is his canvas? His canvas is the spectrum of human emotions as it is embodied in his human subjects. His tools are his manner and tact. Just as the painter knows his brush, and has an intuitive sense of the effect of every single brush stroke upon the canvas, the performance artist must possess a shrewd knowledge of man, calculating the impact of every article of clothing and every gesture of face and hand. At this scene and to this group of wronged, the artist sought a way to enter without infringement, a way to show his solidarity with them while leaving them the privacy to mourn, but most importantly, a way to show them that indeed, there was life, possibility and some very real solutions beyond that moment, if only they were willing to recharge themselves positively and get back up on their feet.

For this, he uses the word ‘Manzoa’ as his passport. He appears on the scene wearing a red t-shirt with the word ‘Manzoa’ inscribed across the front. He understands that he cannot afford to explain anything verbally, the people being too broken to listen and too bitter to believe. A visual statement is crucial, it’s all they could register, so he comes brandishing his intentions under the word ‘Manzoa’, waving it in their face like a white flag of peace. “They reacted to my art like prisoners to a liberator. It’s as if they had strings binding them, their minds, and their imaginations, and I was releasing them, tearing away cord after cord. I almost felt that kind of relief go through them.”

Restoring behaviour by degrees: ‘My art is nothing if it doesn’t come from people, and from the core of my native soil.’ “When I arrived at the scene, there was total hopelessness. Gradually, I got them to talk about their past, their loss, I played football with them, and when they seemed somewhat normalized, we spoke about solutions, how to approach government officials, what demands to make, how to ensure their letter got to the authorities, etc.'”

For the duration of his stay with them, he absorbs their exhaled grief and soothes them. To catharsis, to acceptance, to action, who knows? Somewhere between the artist’s will to bear and the people’s will to share is an equilibrium and a balance called art. Because it comes from as well as aims towards a dignity of emotions that is above trivial or ordinary, that lifts us out of our human traps, and allows us to soar at the fringes of our potential, our encounter with it cleanses us. And because we cannot perfect our own inner balance, we seek the artist as mediator. Mediating is an advantage that Gharem has cultivated with the duality he has been nurturing inside him for so long, sliding from one chamber to another with ease, juggling a day job as a disciplinarian with a fully grown passion as a liberal thinker and creator, balancing shrewd insight with genuine compassion, and scaling new heights of ideas while staying firmly rooted to the ground.

Insight and playfulness combined: A work called ‘Stamp’, a sideways comment on bureaucracy. The text reads ‘Have a bit of commitment’ and of course, ‘Amen”.

‘My only fear is running out of ideas’, he says. Canvas one can buy, and paint one can refill, but the molder of situations counts solely on his imagination and the ‘luck’ of hitting upon the right situation to draw upon. He is working with air, one moment there is nothing, not even possibility, and the next moment, there is an idea stronger than stone. He could put his fears to rest. With the perspicacity of his insight and the playfulness of his imagination, serendipity is something he has no trouble attracting.

Naima Rashid

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