12 Saudi Arabian Artists Explore the Kingdom’s Future

'Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia' provides a glimpse into the concerns of a nation.

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Jun 29 2016, 1:05pm

Ajlan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates, 2015. All images courtesy of The Station Museum of Contemporary Art.

Using video, sculpture, painting, installation, and performance to explore the politics that shape modern life and culture inside the theocratic kingdom, the newly mounted group exhibition, Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston Texas, gives a glimpse into life in the Persian Gulf. The survey features 12 established and emerging artists, including, Sarah Abu Abdullah, Ahaad Alamoudi, Njoud Alanbari, and the YouTube collective Telefaz 11.

“Outside of stereotypical Hollywood portrayals, investigative journalism exposés, and YouTube videos, very little is known in the United States about the people and culture of Saudi Arabia,” reads the exhibition's curatorial statement.

Telefaz 11, Still, Khambalah, 2013

Abdulnasser Gharem’s paintings, Hemisphere and Camouflage, use stamps as a metaphor for the ways the artist feels the Saudi Arabian royal family uses Islam to govern and suppress individuality and democratic action. “What is happening on the ground is camouflage,” writes Gharem in the exhibition catalog. “These theocratic countries are using people’s values to tell them there will be a great future of Islam but in fact they are the victims. My motivation for the stamp painting series came from the realization that I myself was one of the victims.” The show also features Gharem’s Capitol Dome, an installation that recreates a miniature replica of the US Capitol Dome, tilted open to expose a mosque lying underneath. The installation symbolizes the uncertainty that engulfs the region in a post-Arab Spring world.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Capitol Dome, 2012. Photo: Edge of Arabia, London, 2012.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship to oil is also on display in artist Nugamshi’s Calligraphy Car, in which the artist writes in oil over the surface of a jeep. The artist asks, “What will happen when we run out of oil?” In using calligraphy to mark the vehicle, Nugamshi raises concerns about how Saudi Arabian traditions will manifest in the future. Sarah Abu Abdullah’s video work, Saudi Automobile, is also an exploration of the past. In the video, Abdullah can be seen in a traditional hijab painting a wrecked car pink. The gesture alludes to the fact that Saudi women are denied, among other things, the right to drive. “This wishful gesture was the only way I could get myself a car—cold comfort for the current impossibility of my dream that I, as an independent person, can drive myself to work one day,” states the artists about her performance piece.  

Abdulnasser Gharem, Hemisphere, 2015

Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates image depicts a group of men praying in a mosque made from metal fencing adorned with neon lights. Gharem’s art illuminates the generational divisions that exist in the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. “The older generation has more beliefs than knowledge, and our generation has more knowledge than beliefs,” he writes in the exhibition catalog. “So we’re trying to find beliefs that can be harmonized with our knowledge.”

Ajllan Gharem, Paradise Has Many Gates, 2015

The exhibition’s curators say Parallel Kingdom, “seeks to use the visual language and firsthand accounts of these artists to lay a new foundation for discourse and understanding of Saudi society, cultures and politics.”

Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia continues through October 2 at The Station Museum of Contemporary Art. Click here for more information.

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