The dramatic structure is not a shrill comment on America’s relationship with Arab oil but a reflection on one of the most pressing questions associated with the recent Arab Spring: What will a more democratic Middle East look like?
“The Arab Spring has brought the idea of democracy into our region, there is no doubt about that,” says Lt. Col. Abdulnasser Gharem, the charismatic artist behind the piece titled “The Capitol Dome.” “I think now is the time in Saudi Arabia for us to have a conversation about this. We need to think about ways of getting the older generation and the young to talk about what democracy means for us.”
Just as there are those in the United States who question whether democracy is right for the Middle East in light of the sweeping electoral success of Islamist parties in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt — the only countries to hold elections after successful uprisings — there are many within those regions asking the same question, albeit for different reasons.
For all those concerned, there is at least some sense of trepidation about a fully democratic future. This is echoed in Gharem’s decision to set up his dome like an animal trap; only here, the strut waiting to be pulled away is a scaled-down version of Thomas Crawford’s “Statue of Freedom,” the 19,000-pound bronze statue on top of the U. S. Capitol.
“This idea of the animal trap goes back to my childhood,” Gharem explains. “We used to make traps like this for birds using upturned baskets, with a trail of food leading toward it. In the same way, many Saudis are drawn to democracy but we don’t know what is inside. Perhaps it is like a mosque? Perhaps something else.”
It is a question Gharem hopes to raise himself in America when the exhibition tours U.S. universities over the coming two years.
“America as a theme, and as an inspiration, runs throughout this exhibition,” explains Stephen Stapleton, director of Edge of Arabia, the Britain-based arts initiative behind the show. “We are excited about the discussions that will accompany the tour and, of course, the possibility of showing the dome in Washington, D.C. That would be a dream come true.”