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Abdulnasser Gharem: Art of Survival

The Saudi artist on serving his nation's army, the power of the Internet and moving from drawing landscapes to street art

Abdulnasser Gharem and his collaborators, including Ahmed Mater, have created some of the most vivid and politically charged images to emerge from Saudi Arabia in recent years. Gharem is also a Lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army and an important artistic voice in a region going through historical social and political transformation. We chatted to him about his book, 'Art of Survival',

I learn a lot from the military. It helps me think, and it inspires me, for example, the initial idea for my stamp paintings stems from my work – the stamp of approval we all so depend upon

Dazed Digital: A lot of your work seems to happen on the streets, how did your practice develop to this point?
Abdulnasser Gharem: 
When I began drawing at the Al Miftaha Art Village near my hometown in the south of Saudi Arabia, there were no museums, galleries or books on art. We were classical painters, drawing landscapes and if you looked around, there was war, so much around us we wanted to change. Everything comes from the streets and squares, the next generation is changing their societies and they are looking for their dreams from the streets.

DD: How has the literary, artistic and social development of the youth evolved during this period of socio-political transformation?
Abdulnasser Gharem: When Saudi towns got their first internet connection in the late 1990s, it changed everything. It came at just the right time. For many Saudis in my generation the Internet broke with many restrictions. For others it came too late. Until then we had no way of engaging with the world outside. We had only one voice tofollow. With the Internet, suddenly, there were many voices. Social networks have made it easy to communicate; we can now reach out to the whole world. It is often assumed the divisions in Saudi Arabia are religious or political, but they are really between the old and the new. In Saudi people have realised it’s time for the next generation to move up –and for the older generation to start listening more. Thier messages are so pure, honest and signficant that they should all be heard and amplified.

DD: How do you view your place in the global art system today?
Abdulnasser Gharem: I am a proud Saudi citizen and it is important to me that I can help my people make a future for themselves. But the world is global now – we cannot deny that we are all influenced by what’s happening elsewhere. I am getting my ideas through my country. When I picked up the Dome of The Rock for my work Message/Messenger, it was not only a symbol that influenced the Arab world but one that has affected everyone throughout history.

DD: Having served in the Saudi armed forces, how have you been able to reconcile this with your artistic practice?
Abdulnasser Gharem: I learn a lot from the military. It helps me think, and it inspires me, for example, the initial idea for my stamp paintings stems from my work – the stamp of approval we all so depend upon. It becomes like an Art of Survival, and that's what I called my book and how I have often described my practice.

DD: What are your highlights for the rest of the year?
Abdulnasser Gharem: I will be travelling to Art Basel for a talk I’m giving with Edge of Arabia co-founder Ahmed Mater and Director Stephen Stapleton. Then I’ll be in a group shows at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna in June and at the Old Truman Brewery in London this October. I’m also very excited to be showing a large work called Al-Ukhdud, part of a new project called Utopia, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.