For Khaleejesque, I recently spoke to Abdulnasser Gharem, a leading conceptual artist based in Saudi Arabia. His artistic journey is certainly a unique one. Once a Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi Army, in 2011 he went on to become the first Arab artist to sell a piece of art for a record auction price of $890,621 at Christie’s.
Abdulnasser is the passionate co-founder and financier of Gharem Studio, a space for young Saudi artists to learn and engage in creative free thinking, along with his brother Ajlan, a multidisciplinary artist who has recently won the sixth Jameel Prize for his work Paradise Has Many Gates.
In a few short words, Abdulnasser describes the space: “Gharem Studio is not only a space for the artist’s personal production, but also home to a new art initiative.”
Founded in 2013, what sets this creative space apart from similar initiatives is that it is more than just an artist’s studio. The brothers have created this dynamic alternative space for like-minded creatives, and it embodies their own artistic drive. Gharem Studio was founded to encourage and find local Saudi talent that they can help empower. Hosting a diverse program of coveted artist residencies, it serves as a creative hub for the local and regional community, establishing the space as a pioneering art institution in the Kingdom.
Abdulnasser explains, “These kinds of spaces are very important. We are trying to create a dialogue and platform, and also be an incubator.”
The passion and hard work that has gone into making Gharem Studio what it is today can be heard in Abdulnasser’s voice. Having previously supported the arts through his other creative veneurs like Edge of Arabia, he absolutely understands the challenges that creatives face in the Kingdom—from shortage of resources to acceptance and reception of artwork.
As an artist himself, Abdulnasser recognizes the lack of facilities available to the younger generation and took it upon himself to fill the gap. He strongly believes that “there is honestly immense untapped talent across the Kingdom and Gharem Studio came about organically from the need of the people, a place where they can learn about all the different steps it takes to become a successful artist.” Instead of complaining about the lack of resources he took it upon himself to make a safe space that not only allows them to work freely but also gives them an education in the arts that goes far beyond the canvas.
Abdulnasser pointedly mentions that before Gharem Studio there was no gathering space like this in the city [Riyadh], or for that matter across the Kingdom. An inclusive environment, they openly embrace artists but also others in the creative field; photographers, filmmakers, writers, thinkers, and others who want to be part of this tightly knit community. These people all work together to find solutions while learning from each other and growing as individuals.
He goes on to say, “I want this space to act as a guide for everyone who utilizes it to [be able to] come up with ideas and initiatives, [and for it to be] a place where people can be natural.”
The bustling physical space is alive all times of the day and night. It boasts a library, working space, sound studio, fashion section, and small kitchen for those interested in the culinary arts. He explains that it is in fact the library that is the core of the space. Filled with books on art and culture that Abdulnasser has brought back from his travels or paid a fortune to import, they are a valuable resource for anyone who has access to the studio.
This unique approach to learning has been designed by Abdulnasser from scratch and he works hard to collaborate with curators, universities and institutions to embassies. He is eager for these artists to expand their knowledge and gain holistic experiences by travelling abroad for artistic and cultural learning programs. He wholeheartedly believes that becoming an artist is a slow process that has many steps that require more than just working inside a studio.
As the inspiring mentor to his tightly knit group of 11 Saud artists (7 women and 4 men), he wants these young creatives to find their voice, express themselves independently, and to develop critical thinking skills that challenge the status quo. Through his own work, Abdulnasser has broken the norms and produced controversial and daring work that starts conversations on important questions. He encourages his students to work outside their comfort zone and not suppress their imagination or their independent voice.
Providing life-changing opportunities and a nurturing environment allows artists to create projects that cover deeper issues that plague society. From climate change to artificial intelligence, these are just some of the subjects that the residents continue to work on, sometimes even before these subjects gain popularity. Abdulnasser tells us that their pieces “become like an accelerator to pass this information on to the community because these issues are usually covered in terms of statistics and books and nobody is going to read that, but if it comes through a show or a video we are able to spread important messages and educate the public about issues they may not have been aware of.”
Offering a thriving and vibrant energy, it was admittedly a struggle to make the public and government understand their ethos. He says it took him “23 years to convince the community that what I am doing as an artist was right. The projects would be misinterpreted as offensive and now the government is openly supporting us and our projects. Two years ago we also did a collaboration with the Ministry of Culture.” After many years of being pushed to the side and openly criticized, they now have fostered partnerships with the government and proudly have parents bringing in their children for potential enrollment.
The artists that walk through the door don’t leave and that is the success of Gharem Studio.