There’s a moment of surprise when you step inside Abdulnasser Gharem’s studio in Riyadh, located on a nondescript street with 15-foot walls that cover a very ordinary style villa and no signage outside to tell people what lies within. But when the door is swung open by one of the many young artists working and hanging out in what is called Gharem Studio, you get an entirely different vibe. On the right is a monumental wire structure akin to the shape of a mosque, but with a cage-like exterior placed on top of a swimming pool.
“That’s where it seemed to fit best,” says Abdulnasser. It’s Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates (2018), which was recently exhibited at the fourth edition of the Vancouver Biennale. The work, created from a chain link fence, explores the role of barriers in society as physical and psychological blockages that divide people and ideas. It’s in line with Gharem Studio’s mission: “To cultivate natural and organic growth in the local art community, without any outside influence.”
Ajlan Gharem. Mount of Mercy. 2012. Polaroid installation
Light emanates from the house where a series of interconnected rooms give way to artists’ studios, a library, a recording lab and a meeting place. The space exudes a comforting Bohemian vibe. There’s even a garden to the left filled with luscious green plants—an oddity during the hottest days of summer for a city in the Gulf. Shaweesh, one of the artists who works here, greets me and leads me inside where Abdulnasser, who founded the space in 2013, is seated at his desk surrounded by bookcases housing hardcover and paperback books on art, philosophy and literature for all who need them.
At Gharem Studio Abdulnasser, 46, one of Saudi’s most acclaimed artists and former lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, serves as an artistic mentor to a host of young Saudi artists, and sometimes financier to contribute to the running of the studio. Here’s a place where filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, musicians, photographers and writers can come to create their art or just hang out.
The space functions organically; people go and work and utilise what is there to create their art. There are organised talks and film screenings as well as conversations about art. “It is a space where artists can be true to themselves,” explains Ajlan on his website, co-founder of Gharem Studio. “Gharem Studio is not only a space for the artist’s personal production, but also home to a new art initiative. We are trying to create a dialogue and a platform, and also be an incubator.”
The studio is about generating freethinking through art. “We are trying to establish these organisations so that the people can become individual again,” says Abdulnasser. “Artists can influence and affect the society. Art is a new language for the people.”How do the artists know the space exists? “It happens organically,” says Shaweesh, a multimedia artist whose work articulates the cultural diffusions between Saudi Arabia and the global community in order to foster an intercultural artistic dialogue.
“I was born in 1990 when the Gulf war happened and I am now buying media that relates to that time,” he explains as he shows a variety of comic books and western-brand graphics with references to the Gulf War and Middle Eastern stereotypes, such as cartoons with “Bush of Arabia” and old newspaper clippings that depict the Saudi historical narrative in a satirical manner. His latest series superimposes US cultural symbols, including Captain America and Darth Vader, figures he grew up with while watching Western cartoons as a child, onto recent historical events.
Shaweesh’s 2013 photograph entitled United Nations (Yoda) depicts the Star Wars character Yoda superimposed on a photograph of the late King Faisal as he signs the UN Charter in 1945. The photograph sparked controversy when it ended up accidentally in a school textbook. There’s a charm to the image and no offense was intended to King Faisal, who continues to be greatly loved even by younger generations in the Kingdom. Yoda, like the King, said Shaweesh, was “wise, strong and always calm,” he told the BBC at the time. The photograph hangs proudly on the wall in one of the rooms. Its accidental inclusion in the textbook is another example of the power of art to influence social thinking.
In another room Naif Shaqqaf, a 28-year-old filmmaker, shows his three-minute short film Waqf. The film, which won the Colours of Saudi Award as the best cultural and traditional short film in 2017, reveals the moving tale of an elderly worshipper at a 1,000-year-old mosque in a remote mountain community in the Asir region in southern Saudi Arabia. The film was supported by Gharem Studio and edited by Mohammed AlShaalan, another young artist who regularly works at the space. Stunning images of village and neighbouring landscape come into view as does the elderly man whom the spectator follows as he visits his nearby mosque for prayer. “I grew up in the town where I filmed,” says Shaqqaf.
Views of Gharem Studio in Riyadh
“Without Gharem Studio I couldn’t have done the film. The space allows me to bounce off ideas with other artists and we don’t have a lot of spaces like this here in [Saudi Arabia].” Shaweesh introduced Naif to Gharem Studio. The filmmaker used to work with Shaweesh at Telfaz 11, one of the first creative Youtube hubs founded in Riyadh in 2011. “Everyone helps everyone here with the thing that they are good at,” says Shaqqaf. “But everyone has their own path here. We are all self-taught and we come here to create our art.” The artists at Gharem Studio find each other and the space in a seemingly serendipitous manner. “Everyone here is an individual.
We don’t guide people or tell them what to do. They come and maybe something creative will come,” explains Shaweesh. “It’s not a place that is open to the public. It’s official, we have a website and people know we exist, but the way people join needs to be natural. You can’t just send an email,” he laughs. “If you belong here you will somehow end up here.” In a nearby small recording studio, two young Sudanese musicians, Anas Subeati and Bader Abogoda, can be heard rehearsing reggae-inspired tunes. The sound studio is run by Wael Gharem, brother to Abdulnasser and Ajlan.
Gharem Studio is a collective enterprise. There are currently 11 artists—men and women—in residence at the studio. There’s no sponsor for the space; it is entirely self-funded. “Most of the money generated by artwork goes to pay the rent and sometimes, when Abdulnasser sells an artwork, it goes to the Studio,” says Shaweesh. “People come and go, sometimes residing for a few years or a few months depending on their interests and how serious they are in their art.” The Studio hosts a regular programme of events, including movie screenings, lectures, and discussions. In the absence of any formalized art education, the space constitutes a grassroots initiatives dedicated to learning and creativity.
Shaweesh. United Nations (Yoda & King Faisal). 2013. Handprinted photo-etching 56x47cm
Amani AlTamimi is a dancer and dance teacher. While she doesn’t use the space to practice or perform, she is there frequently to exchange ideas with other artists, borrow books and just hang out. “I give ballet, jazz and contemporary dance classes to children and adults in Riyadh,” she says, also entirely self-taught. “I use the space as a place to brainstorm where I can discuss certain topics and be inspired within the space and inside.”
Amani and her sister Fatma, an art teacher and Pilates instructor also in residence at Gharem Studio, will go soon to Berlin for Berlin Art Week, a trip that has been organized by the Studio. “Ballet, what Amani is doing, is a new thing to the country so it is important that we provide them with opportunities to develop it outside as well,” says Abdulnasser. “The performance art scene is still not yet developed here,” adds Amani.
“The space is just not about being free but about what kind of knowledge we are accessing,” says Gharem. He is regularly acquiring art films, specialised books on art and culture and literature to share with Gharem Studio residents. “We are promoters of free thinking but there is a lot of knowledge out there that is fake and not real—we need to educate ourselves in the right way,” he adds.
“There’s a lot of illusion in the world right now. We need to be truthful.” Gharem recently gave a lecture in Saudi Arabia on the Medici family in Florence and the role that the family, renowned as patrons of the arts, played in the social and economic success of the city of Florence. “I started from Dante during the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance and continued through to the Medici family,” says Gharem. “The Jameel family in Saudi Arabia was our biggest patron in the beginning. What we need now are artists to spark the change just like the Medicis did. An artist is a catalyst for the future.”
From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art