Saudi artist hopes to stir conversation about democracy


The opening night of the #ComeTogether exhibition of contemporary modern art from the Arab world featured this piece by Lt. Col. Abdulnasser Gharem of Saudi Arabia, titled “The Capitol Dome.” (Alex Maguire)
October 8, 2012

Saudi Arabia is not renowned for its art scene, which might explain why one of its leading lights, a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Army, has chosen to launch his largest and most daring piece to date here in London, not Riyadh.

Rather than an oil painting of an Arab stallion in a desert — a staple of Saudi art until recently — the work is a towering, four-meter-wide replica of the dome of the U.S. Capitol with an interior done up to look like a mosque, with the whole structure balanced precariously over black panels resembling a sea of oil. It is the centerpiece of #ComeTogether, an exhibition of contemporary art from across the Islamic World that opened on London’s fashionable Brick Lane to coincide with this week’s Frieze Art Fair.

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.”

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