Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of the museum of Saudi art in Amsterdam redefines green as well as the limits and power of human thought in a delightful and instructive conversation with Jeddah Blog.
The museum of contemporary Saudi art, Greenbox Museum, is a museum, it is safe to say, like no other. It is ‘kept’ by a man who is, it is safe to say, like few others. The museum is not located, as you would expect, in the well-known cosmopolitan cities of Riyadh or Jeddah, or for that matter, anywhere in the Kingdom or the Middle East. It is located, roughly a continent away, in the city of Amsterdam. It is not housed in a glossy high rise the likes of which dot the Middle East, but in a small and cozy space a little bigger than 6 by 12 square meters, on the fifth floor of an inconspicuous building, a stone’s throw from the better known Van Gogh Museum. Its creator and keeper is not a Saudi or a Muslim, but a Dutch who has never stepped foot inside the Kingdom, but who nonetheless looks to the gates of Mecca for guidance. “In the Quran, I read that Mecca is a guide for all human beings. For the moment, that includes me, and nobody should object.” Ostensibly, the museum’s aim is to serve no purpose but thought alone, and at present, it houses a small but significant collection of works by roughly six Saudi artists, displaying a range of works selected solely for the force of ideas they represent.
Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of Greenbox Museum of contemporary Saudi art, talks to Jeddah Blog about how the museum came into being, how it stands today, and where he sees it headed.
Aarnout, you are a Dutch who has never visited Saudi Arabia, and yet, you are in a way, the ambassador for its art. Isn’t that just a little bit strange?
Karl May was a German, who never visited America, and was a successful writer of cowboy and Indian stories. I’m no less and no more strange than that.
The museum was born of your connection with Islam. What exactly is your connection with Islam?
My connection with Islam goes back all the way to my childhood. I inherited a box of family memorabilia with a postcard that belonged to my grandfather. It had been sent to him by his uncle. On this postcard, the word ‘Allah Taalah’ was inscribed on the four corners, and my grandfather’s uncle had done the calligraphy himself. He was Dutch, born of a Dutch father and a Javanese mother, himself married a Javanese wife, and converted to Islam. Apart from the postcard, I received several colourful stories about him in my legacy. So, you can say that Islam was present by token since childhood. Then, living in the Netherlands, I was no stranger to Islam. It has always somewhat ‘been in the air’. To quote an example, Mohammad is the most popular name for newborns in Amsterdam and other big cities here. However, I became involved more directly with it in recent years, when I started reading the Quran myself.
A foot in several cultures: The rare and enchanting legacy that was passed on to Aarnout, and which informed, to a great extent, the course of his life. (Image by Aarnout Helb)
The museum itself was born out of the confluence of a couple of incidents. On a visit to Singapore, in the Malabar mosque, I accepted the Imam’s invitation for a cup of tea, and over tea, I asked him if he could show me where it was written in the Quran that respected and interested travel to Mecca was forbidden to non-Muslims. I’m a lawyer by training, so I wanted to understand what the legislation was that led to this assumption. Well, he couldn’t answer me, and having left the discourse, I’m not really bothered by the question any more – Saudi Arabia is very hot anyways to my knowledge- but to some extent, my museum is the metamorphosis of this legal question. If I couldn’t go to Mecca, I could bring Mecca to me indirectly. I conceived the museum as a virtual voyage to Mecca. Another factor was crucial in the creation of the museum. A Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, who I used to meet at my barbershop, was murdered by a confused young Dutch Muslim. Theo made documentaries, and in his own way, was trying to understand Islam. His manner was often offensive to Muslims, but I do know that he was genuinely trying to understand them and paying them respect instead of ignoring them. The incident made me realize that we are divided in the head, and that nothing will change unless things are not set right in our heads. The museum was conceived as a space for a healthy, open-minded and ongoing discussion, leading people in through curiosity.
You see the museum as a space of the mind?
Essentially, yes. I collect artworks based on the merit of their ideas, and use them as portals to ideas. I’m hosting a space in which ideas can flow freely, in an open, non judgmental way. My space is very limited in terms of square metres, but large in terms of the mind. I have long passed the official White Cube museum in terms of facebook ‘likes’. The museum is not about paintings and statues and its intention is not to place art on an elevated position. It is about ideas, visual communication, research, curiosity and all of that in a pleasant way. Wearing a white dress does not mean the world is white and researching what goes on in terms of visual impulses we receive all day, actually strengthens people against all the misleading commercial and political information that is carried around, and which is, more often than not, the cause of misunderstandings and conflicts.
What’s with the colour green?
The green on my walls first of all reflects my wish to take a designated interest. It’s like my statement of purpose. When I established the museum to research what different people make in terms of visual art from Mecca, I still wasn’t clear about the exact direction and about my later decision to house only art from Saudi Arabia. So, taking a cue from the first painting that entered the museum, which happened to be a very green landscape painting by Jan Heyse of a region down south in the Netherlands, I started painting the walls green. While I was still painting the walls, I realized that the color is also that of Islam. At this time, I acquired some work from the series ‘Yellow Cow’ by Ahmed Mater, and later, some more work by Saudi artists through the Edge of Arabia initiative. But I had works by non-Saudi artists as well till this time. The defining moment came when I realized in the course of my correspondence with Saudi artists Lulwah Al-Homoud, Reem Al-Faisal, and Maha Malluh how much they enjoyed this interest in art from their country, and that there was no such museum in KSA itself. That was the moment I decided to remove everything else and collect only works by those who share in having custody of Mecca. Mecca is the symbolic centre of Islam, all Muslims look Mecca-wards while praying. That was the key concept, I thought about the direction of the eyes of all Muslims. In that sense, I’m an artist, I see the oneness of things, and I will not compromise on the conceptual premise by sending eyes in all directions of the world. So, the green on my walls is the stamp of that conceptual commitment.
Do you collect based on a particular criterion? Is there a pattern? How is it going to be in the future?
I go by the ideas that the works represent. My museum is the size and nature of a cabinet of curiosities, and I intend to keep it that way. My aims are modest. I work on a small private budget. I don’t wish to expand beyond a certain limit and get into the whole business of getting sponsors. In the future, I intend to collect two works each year by young artists.
Regarding the whole concept of Islamic art, what is your perspective? Doesn’t concept art and its high creativity clash with the traditionally understood (or misunderstood) role of the artist as a re-arranger or a passive creator instead of an active one?
This is important. The greatest of all Dutch writers that ever lived, Multatuli, noted somewhere that artists and poets are only re-arrangers and never creators. I totally agree with this concept and this small museum – in some ways only an installation of a lawyer with a sketchbook – is of this serving and open minded character. Everything in the museum was handed to me from elsewhere at different moments in time and the only thing I do is take rational decisions, based on all that I know and meet, to channel a process that I earnestly believe that I do not own. My perspective to your question is that the concept of Islamic art is terribly damaging to Muslims. A wise man, perhaps long ago in Isfahan, once wrote on a new dinner plate, in his most accomplished handwriting, that there is only one God and that his name is Allah. The next day, or many years later, a Western ‘art expert’ got his hands on this plate and defined it as being of another God than his own and so completely defeated the artist’s intention. I think, to truly and strongly answer your question, that ‘Islamic art’ is a colonial coinage and definition and that Museums for Islamic art around the world are actually British prisons for the creativity of Muslims. Have you ever noticed how often such museums are consulted by people from European museums with colonial and anthropological collections? I will tell you this. This little space that is Greenbox Museum breaks free of this tradition and is filled with ideas about the unity of all things. It by far transcends such heavily consulted Arab or Islamic projects in the Gulf or elsewhere, whatever their very best of intentions.
How do you feel about the profile of your museum as it is evolving now, the profiles of visitors and facebook ‘likers’? This museum of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia is attracting ‘likers’ from all over the Muslim world.
The museum has no predictions, no prognosis and no business model. As I said, I think Greenbox Museum transcends what others do in terms of art museums in relationship to Islam. That is how I interpret the ‘likes’ I gather on facebook. They are from Tanger in Morocco to Port Darwin In Australia, where somebody from Indonesia lives who dresses his young son as a Saudi. The visitors in Amsterdam are less than I would like but there is so much to do here and I take things slowly, not wanting to spend money on advertising. Most ‘likers’ are now from Indonesia, then Pakistan, and recently, a lot of Muslims from India as well as Algerians and Tunisians have been discovering the museum page. There are now 4500 Saudi Arabians who like the page.
What are the profiles of your real visitors? Do they consciously come looking for Saudi art or are they just dropping in to see just ‘a’ museum? What are their reactions?
They consciously come looking for Saudi art and sometimes even fly in against my advise but combine it on a first visit to Amsterdam with the Van Gogh Museum. I do have the occasional Dutch lady and gentleman who have seen all other museums. In general, when they come, they spend at least an hour, viewing the work and then discussing with me. Western visitors always have simplistic clichés about Islam and Saudi Arabia and art related to the two, but I hope the museum does its part in realigning their perspective, if not dispelling the clichés altogether. Of all visitors their surprise is complete, and although personal opinions and reactions vary, they all meet the unexpected. It opens people’s eyes. I think nobody walks out of the museum indifferent.
From what you tell, the museum came about as a happy accident. What would you be doing if you weren’t researching and collecting Saudi art?
‘Only Allah knows the unseen’.
Green is also the colour of fertility. The landscape of our mind is often rife with misconceptions, prejudices and false ideas about the nature of things. More than anything else, perhaps, the green of Greenbox represents the will and the courage to pluck out these weeds and to restore the pure green landscape of the mind.
All images reproduced courtesy the Greenbox Collection unless specified otherwise.
– Naima Rashid