Places of worship fill many roles in society — and an art installation in the shape of a mosque can invoke polarizing reactions in different lands, as Ajlan Gharem has discovered.
On June 19, the Saudi Arabian artist traveled to Canada to present his life-sized conceptual piece “Paradise Has Many Gates” at the Vancouver Biennale. An interactive installation which renders the unmistakable outline of a mosque in a skeleton cage of cold steel, the work will stand at the city’s Vanier Park — a high-profile public space also home to many museums and music festivals — for two years, during which it will host workshops, talks and performances.
“It’s not just something to show — it’s going to be a new space for ideas, for dialogue, for a new kind of conversation,” Gharem said.
It is a significant platform for a Saudi artist to exhibit at the noted open-air sculpture and performance festival, which has previously commissioned large-scale public works from Chinese A-lister Ai Weiwei, and this year will welcome Yoko Ono to accept its Distinguished Artist Award.
And it will hopefully offer a happier chapter in the work’s stormy story. “Paradise Has Many Gates” has, in the past, been suddenly pulled from two public appearances, and sparked a violent, viral, social-media debate.
Probing issues of religious orthodoxy, education and Islamophobia, the wall-less structure presents a paradoxical sanctuary. A comfy traditional rug lines the floor, yet there is threatening intent to the glaring fluorescent lights that switch on at sundown. The structure is made from the severe steel fencing normally reserved for cages and border disputes — attracting comparisons to both US military prison compound Guantanamo Bay and the fortifications used to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. The dual imagery perhaps shouts loudest at the five times of the day when the call to prayers emerges, recorded in voices drawn from a variety of Muslim-majority countries.
The installation is one of the first major works from 32-year-old Gharem — younger brother of leading Saudi conceptual artist Abdulnasser Gharem. Inspiration struck when the artist found himself approaching 30, astride a growing generational divide between the Kingdom’s elders and established traditions, and the swelling ranks of youthful voices — with estimates placing around 70 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population under 30 years of age. His website states: “The mosque is a conduit for the symbolic power wielded by all those above the unwitting individual… The mosque is the public square reincarnate but with attendance mandatory, at least socially.”
Aware of the charged nature of his subject, Gharem first erected “Paradise Has Many Gates” in the desert, an hour’s drive outside of Riyadh, conceiving the temporary structure as the subject of a four-minute short film to be presented at galleries overseas. He also shot a series of photographs before disassembling his work the following day without attracting attention. However, when he later shared an image of the piece on social media, it ignited a heated reaction he had not anticipated.
“People started saying ‘This is a mosque made of fences. It’s like a cage,’” the artist recalled. “It was posted on everyone’s account, everywhere — when I opened my timeline all I could see were pictures of the mosque with people saying something bad, or something good. That’s why I was afraid.”
That fear led Gharem to pull the photographs from their planned debut at “Ricochet,” a group show at London’s Asia House, in 2015. He eventually “had the courage” to share the images for the first time at a later exhibition, entitled “In Search of Lost Time,” at London’s Brunei Gallery, SOAS, in early 2016.
The structure itself has proved equally divisive. Later that same year, “Paradise Has Many Gates” was erected in the parking lot of Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art; its first physical appearance since its brief stint in the desert. It was part of another group Saudi showcase entitled “Parallel Kingdom,” and was quickly embraced by the community as everything from a place of worship to a quiet yoga spot. After several weeks, it was all set to be packed up and shipped for exhibition in Aspen, Colorado — but organizers mysteriously pulled the plug at the last minute. Gharem’s mosque stayed in Texas all summer.
And in December, the piece’s projected four-month appearance in Bahrain was cut short after just 24 hours, when people began to use the installation as an actual mosque, and prayed inside.
Such setbacks, Gharem said, only confirmed his belief in the strength of the concept behind “Paradise Has Many Gates.”
“They couldn’t make any reason for why they’re going to take it out — they couldn’t understand… (didn’t) realize what was happening,” he said. “This is good, when you have an idea that brings people together, and you see people you are just afraid of this idea.”
The work’s two-year appearance at Vancouver will undoubtedly raise Gharem’s profile considerably, positioning him at the forefront of the emerging wave of Saudi Arabian artists finding success abroad. However, art is just a part-time calling — Gharem also serves as an elementary school mathematics teacher, a position he is in no hurry to abandon.
“For me the teaching thing is good, it gives me a chance to be among the people, among the society — the revolution is in the kids,” he said. “So, I’m a math teacher by day, and an artist by night.”
Gharem’s first significant solo work was “Mount of Mercy,” an evolving series of heartfelt photographs left by pilgrims visiting the religious site also known as Mount Arafat. Gharem drew from more than 10,000 images he has collected during repeated visits to Makkah over the past six years.
He was encouraged to find his own voice after a decade spent “helping” his famous older brother: Inspired by the lack of institutional support the younger artist encountered, the pair co-founded Gharem Studio, a nourishing, not-for-profit organization offering studio space, training, careers guidance and resources to Riyadh’s growing rank of young artists.
“The scene has really picked up in the last five years,” Gharem said. “Even just three, four years ago, you could only find 10 or 15 artists representing Saudi. Since then everyone has tried to be an artist and gone with the wave. I think now is the time for us, because everything is moving so quickly — at this time we start to see our problems, our issues… Everything is starting to reveal in front of us.
“Now the role of art is to start doing something,” he continued. “It’s the most important time to be an artist.”
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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