Abdulnasser Gharem runs his finger over one of the artworks that have made him the highest-selling contemporary Arab artist in the world. “Camouflage” is a Bansky-esque piece in which a tank appears to be firing a flower into the heart of a mosque. “When I made this, Saudi Arabia was negotiating with Germany to buy tanks,” he says. “So here I cover them with Islamic patterns. Governments like to convince us that we need protecting. But who, actually, is the enemy?”
The message of “Camouflage” is all the more remarkable given that when Gharem made it he was a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army. He began with simple illustrative work for fun as a twenty-something in Riyadh in the late 1990s; when, 10 years later, his practice developed into more conceptual message-based canvasses he would often have to fit paintings around postings.
When the pull of art became too strong in his early forties and he quit the military life, Gharem was still fully aware that liberal activists were being imprisoned in Saudi. To an outsider it seems incredible that Gharem could comment on suffocating bureaucracy, environmental concerns and religious issues while continuing to live in Riyadh. “Holding up a mirror to my society and showing them what mistakes they make can be a dangerous thing,” he says. “A year ago King Abdullah wrote to the Ministry of Culture to ask what I was doing. I turned into a PR spin doctor, twisting the meanings of the works into something he could understand.”
Gharem might have to employ a new approach now Saudi Arabia has a new king. “I’m in trouble now,” he says with a smile. “King Salman’s son knows me and sometimes comes to my studio. I told him I’m not showing him everything...”
It may be the obvious comparison but Gharem’s tactics are akin to manoeuvres in the army. “To engage in battle with someone is the very last option you have,” he says, laughing. He thinks of his work as a humanitarian mission, a way in which he can encourage people to think about Saudi Arabia and perhaps effect change within it. The way he justifies his subject matter is straightforward: his work could, theoretically, be about anywhere. “People in London and Delhi are just as frustrated by bureaucracy, religion or politics.” In the London warehouse where Gharem is casting an approving eye over works waiting to be sold or sent to exhibitions around the world there’s a disarming equanimity and openness about him, given the very real potential for his words to be twisted and used against him. Dressed in jeans and a shirt having forgotten his thobe, his relaxed confidence is borne of the influence he is beginning to have, impressive given that when he started making contemporary art in Saudi there were no resources nor encouragement. At school, if he didn’t agree wholeheartedly with the teachers his marks would be manipulated so it would appear he wasn’t studying properly.
His response, once he’d begun to build a profile, was to co-found Edge Of Arabia, a non-profit platform promoting artistic development within Saudi. More recently, Gharem has set up a studio in Riyadh where young artists come and borrow books from his extensive library, loan cameras and take part in workshops. Last month one of them, Dhafer Alshahry, won a National Geographic award.
“Once we’d worked on the concepts with him he developed into a great photographer,” says Gharem. “There’s no college in Saudi that is going to teach people like Dhafer but the talent is there. They just need the right education and environment to think and create without the influence of politics and religion.”
Politics and religion are, however, shot through everything Gharem does. “Message/Messenger” – probably the most obvious of his works – features a tiny dove underneath Jerusalem’s iconic Dome Of The Rock; it sold for €770,000 in 2011. “In Transit”, in which a Boeing 747 is surrounded by Islamic patterns, is a response to September 11 and Gharem has more personal interest than most: two of the highjackers were in his class at school.
“There were rumours they’d left our city and the next time I saw them was on television,” he says. “This work is a reflection of that journey to a life where people want to move to another country and kill. We have to make them see there’s a better way. Maybe it can be through art.”
The piece in which he thinks all these concerns come together most effectively is “The Path”. The word siraat – meaning “the path” and part of a Muslim phrase repeated many times a day in prayer – was spray painted onto a collapsed bridge for four days and four nights.
“For me as an Arab man it’s hard to turn that holy text into an image,” he says. “I had to be careful but the idea controlled me. I wanted to claim back all the great things about our heritage and culture from the politicians and religious people who only use what serves their interests. They ignore all the wonderful things about Islam; the job of the artist is to tell the truth through an unofficial history.”
What history does Gharem think will be written about Saudi Arabia in the years to come? “It’s not me who decides,” he says. “But since working with this younger generation I am hopeful. It’s taken me 18 years to get understood in my country and everything is OK for me but these youngsters will do something unexpected, I’m sure of it. I’m not talking about revolution but the gap to the governing generation is getting smaller.”