Today I am going to tell you about the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia. This small museum is located in Leidseplein, in a larger office space down the street from a cluster of busy bars and clubs. I stood in front of “The Chicago Social Club” for a good ten minutes seriously pondering if a collection of contemporary Saudi art could be housed inside in some secret room (behind the bar..?) But no. If you intend to visit, walk down Korte Leidsedwarsstraat, beyond the mass of outdoor bars, toward a silver-doored office complex. You will absolutely not regret it. And here is why:
The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia is a gem; a sizable collection of fascinating Saudi art, each work with a unique story and connection to the collector/curator. I am not sure which to refer to him by, as his personal acquisition of each work would suggest that he is a collector. Yet his extensive and scholarly knowledge of Saudi Arabian history and contemporary politics/art, as well as his consideration of the viewer’s experience when viewing the work, reveals that he is undoubtedly a curator as well.
In a visit to a larger museum, there is little opportunity to interact with curators and gain first-hand information about the work beyond the wall placards and audioguide. Here, the curator walked me through the exhibit and engaged me in a dialogue about Saudi Arabian history, politics, and art. In this way, the experience was more like visiting a gallery, and yet none of these works are for sale. That is the wonderful paradox of the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia: it has the intimacy of a gallery and the dignified atmosphere of a museum.
Take a look at some of the impressive works and their stories. My analyses are a combination of what I learned from the curator of the museum and my own interpretations. Feel free to challenge me, or to add on to my thoughts.
* * *
Here is a photograph called, The Path, by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).
The Path is actually a still photo of a video work of the same name. Both works depict a bridge in a south-western Saudi Arabian village. During a dreadful flood in 1982, villagers took refuge on this bridge. Tragically, the foundation of the bridge was unstable, and the flood caused the bridge to break, killing all of the people on it. In 2007, remnants of the bridge remained, reminding people of the tragedy that occurred over twenty years before. No one is certain why the bridge collapsed, but it was likely because the builders did not give it a proper foundation. This irresponsible decision likely also saved the (corrupt) construction company a lot of money.
Gharem visited the site of the collapse in 2007, and spray-painted the word ‘al siraat’ over and over again on the road. ‘Al-Siraat’ means ‘the path’ in arabic. This act was captured on camera in a video-installation. In this video, the child of a victim partakes in the spray-painting, which adds a greater tone of somberness to this already bitter work. You can watch the video here.
‘The path’ may very well refer to Islam. In the Islamic faith, ‘the path’ is the road Allah summons Muslims to take; a way of spiritual living outlined by Allah. By repeating the word’ al-siraat’ over and over again on this broken bridge, is Gharem suggesting that certain elements of his faith are broken? That following ‘the path’ may lead to death?
It is, of course, possible, but I do not think that this is what Gharem is trying to say. It seems too easy a jump to make- too simple and graphic a metaphor. I believe that Gharem is pointing out a flaw in the mentality of his people, not in religion. Perhaps he is saying that the basic tenets of Islam are being lost beneath religious politics and modernization. After all, it is written: “Serve God…and do good — to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (you meet), and what your right hands posses: for God loves not the arrogant, the vainglorious.” [4:36] Respect for human life is a basic principle of Islam. There is nothing less Muslim than the tragedy of 1982, as it was the consequence of corruption in the construction firm that built the unstable bridge. After all, it is much cheaper to build a shallow bridge than a properly stabilized one. The moment that saving money becomes more important than protecting human lives, there is something deeply wrong. In this way, I believe that Gharem is calling for a return to ‘Al-Sitaar.’ His people have wandered off the path, and he is directing them back.
* * *
This is Pedestrian Crossing, also by Abdulnasser Gharem (2008).
Pedestrian Crossing depicts the iconographic image of the plane flying into the World Trade Center. On the viewer’s left is a curved yellow road meant to represent the same metaphorical Path described in The Path.
In this work, stamps are the medium, but not to create a print. Usually, stamps are used to imprint an image or text in ink on a sheet of paper. Here, the stamps themselves are used, their rubber corners lined up to one another to form a larger image. Note how most of the work uses arabic-lettered stamps, but the body of the Twin Towers utilizes latin letters.
It is important to note that 15 of the 19 hijackers associated with the 9/11 attacks were members of Al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem seems to be grappling with the fact that several of his countrymen were responsible for the attacks. The Towers and the Path are depicted starkly, with clean, straight lines delineating one form from the next. They float in a gray vacuum, forcing focus onto the motifs of the buildings and the plane. Such a graphic representation forces the event to be seen, and begs for it to be discussed. Pedestrian Crossing does not get bogged down in aesthetics or emotions. It puts forth the facts: two buildings were struck, thousands died, and the majority of those responsible were Saudi Arabian. By forcing the facts onto the table, Gharem demands viewers to face what has happened. He wants them to talk about how such a thing could happen, how a basic principle of Islam- respect for human life- could be forgotten.
Again, Gharem is not attacking his own faith. Rather, he is questioning the general mentality of his country that has engendered extremist groups whose warped version of Islam abandons its true, peaceful intentions. With Pedestrian Crossing, Gharem exposes this twisted mentality, and calls for a discussion about confronting extremism in Saudi Arabia.
* * *
Cardiac Illumination, by Ahmed Mater (2007) approaches the subject of Islam in a very different way.
Mater uses gold leaf, pomegranate, tea, ink, and x-ray to create this illuminated ‘page’ of the Quran. It is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, yet this page is not book-size. It is over a meter tall and reads more like a painting than a book.
I find this work fascinating because it rides the fine line between profanity and sacrality. In the Islamic faith, figurative representations are prohibited. Contrary to popular belief, figurative Islamic art does exist outside the Mosque. However, such a thing is sacrilegious in religious spaces, because the only image of Allah is The Word, printed in the Quran. And so, the use of x-rays as decoration on an imagined page of the Quran is questionable. An x-ray, by definition, is a depiction of the human form. At the same time, it is a scientific scan, rather than an actively painted or drawn estimation of the human body. Furthermore, an x-ray only depicts bones. It leaves out all of the elements that make a figure resemble a figure, like muscle, skin, hair- a face! What is an x-ray more than a series of eerie white lines arranged around a spine?
So why, then, did Mater choose to include these controversial x-rays in his work? It can not be just to provide a loophole to a rule in his faith. I think it has something to do with the pureness and liberty of faith. Having faith is an act of baring one’s soul, and opening it up to light. For many, prayer is an act of sharing one’s innermost thoughts and seeking peace of mind. A skeleton is a very literal translation of this concept.
Furthermore, skeletons look more or less the same, while individual people with faces and clothing are distinguishable. By depicting x-rays of human bones, perhaps Mater also suggests that we are all the same to a higher being. Skin color, social status, daily stresses and problems are stripped away in the eyes of Allah (or the Jesus Christ, or God… is it really any different in any other faith?) The fact that one is just as loved as everyone else is a very comforting thought to many who are unsatisfied with their present conditions on earth.
* * *
Lastly, I would like to show you Yellow Cow Products, also by Ahmed Mater (2007).
The yellow cow is part of a story in the Quran in which Moses tells several Israelites to slaughter a yellow cow and perform several rituals with it. In doing so, they will find out who has committed a dreadful murder. It has taken on a role as a motif that is highly recognizable as a part of Islamic faith.
And so, its commercialization as a line of dairy products is a cheeky response to modernization and capitalism in Saudi Arabia. The yellow cow becomes a product that can be farmed, marketed, sold, bought, and ingested. Importantly: it can also go bad. After all, dairy products do have an expiration date. Mater writes on his blog about this work: “In the ‘yellow cow’ the world is ornate; its bright color is joyful. This glittering world implies that it is highly valuable, that it is all that you want, and all that you live for, but once it owned you (while thinking it owned you) you start to realize what a poor, shabby world it is. And you become a poor shabby human.”
I think this most interesting aspect of this quote is the concept that the world of the yellow cow owns you, rather than the other way around. This is the effect of capitalism, in Mater’s mind. It is a trap in which we are caught and tricked into thinking we have control, but in reality, we are slaves to the products we think we need. Capitalism, Mater says, has the ability to transform even the holiest of things- the yellow cow- into something that is churned (put intended) out to meet consumer demands.
At the bottom of the frame the words “ideologically free” are printed. This is a play on words, as some dairy products are “pesticide free,” and “homogenized” and “pasteurized.” Here what we are free from is not hormones, but any kind of ideology with a set of values and beliefs. Instead, we have been stripped of our individual ideologies in order to survive in an increasingly consumer society.
I think that this attack on consumerism can apply worldwide, but that it is specifically aimed here at Saudi Arabia, a country whose modernization in the past forty years has been uneven. Gharem’s The Path shows how modernization in small villages has been careless and haphazard. In central cities, however, Mater describes crowds of people snapping pictures of towers with their iPhones. Using the yellow cow, a symbol of the Islamic faith specifically, is a reminder to the people in Saudi Arabia of the entrapment of consumerism.
* * *
I hope that you enjoyed this post. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was one of my favorite museums here in Amsterdam. I left feeling like I had learned a lot, but with even more questions than I started with. I look forward to doing further research about contemporary Saudi Arabian art. I am also doing research on conflict in Saudi Arabia for one of my courses here in Amsterdam, and I look forward to incorporating what I learned at the Greenbox into my paper. It’s funny how things come together like that- I discovered a museum devoted to Saudi Arabian art the same week I chose Saudi Arabian modernization as a topic for my research.
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for art that can add depth to other things that you are learning. It is fascinating to see how interconnected the world is.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe ❤