Based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ajlan Gharem works as a Mathematics teacher during the day and a contemporary artist in the night.
‘Paradise has many gates’, Ajlan’s installation of a mosque with a cage-like structure, has been given its due recognition and admiration at many international exhibitions, and is now a part of Vancouver Biennale 2018. Ajlan’s second key project, ‘Mount of Mercy’, is a collection of numerous images, hidden letters and discarded objects left by pilgrims at the religious site of Mount Arafat.
Along with his elder brother, Abdulnasser Gharem – an established contemporary artist, Ajlan has also created Gharem Studio, an alternative arts space in Riyadh for young, emerging artists of the region. For our August interview, we had a conversation with Ajlan about his life and work. Read on:
Could you tell us about your childhood, and your growing up years in Khamis Mushayt?
It was the city that my father chose to establish his furniture factory in after moving from a small village and we were a big family so everyone had to take care of himself/herself in terms of education. It was a kind of city where all the siblings would go to the same school. I remember spending a lot of time on the roof of our house, just looking at the city.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
One part of my inspiration came from my brother Abdulnasser Gharem, and the other from the time when we had a carpentry workshop in the basement of our house which had workers from Philippines. I used to spend a lot of time with them, playing with wood, making stuff, and just observing how they made such beautiful things.
When did you move to Riyadh?
After receiving my Mathematics degree from King Khalid University in 2008, we realized that Khamis Mushayt was too small for us. My brother and I just couldn’t express ourselves there anymore, so we moved to Riyadh.
Your studied Mathematics in your graduation, and then ended up being an artist. How was that transition?
Being a full-time artist was never a part of my life plan. I was always told that I had to get a “real” job, and then I could practice my art. So I graduated from college and became a Mathematics teacher. And at that time, I started working with my brother as an assistant and producer, but I didn’t actually think about being an artist. In 2013, we found an old villa and decided to make Gharem Studio, and then I found my place. Launching the studio became the moment for me to be an artist.
Artists need to be around each other. No one is going to support them if they don’t support each other.
Could you tell us about the making of your project ‘Paradise has many gates’?
‘Paradise has many gates’ is my first installation work – a 10 x 6.5 meter mosque constructed from industrial steel. While true to the design and function of a traditional Islamic place of worship, this mosque is built from the same cage-like material that Western countries use to erect fences along their borders, preventing refugees and illegal immigrants from entering.
Along with the installation, the work includes a video of me and other construction workers building the mosque in the desert outside Riyadh, staging a prayer performance and then deinstalling it.
Evoking feelings of imprisonment and anxiousness because of its caged structure, while also representing Muslims’ center of prayer, this mosque invites all visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to question how we designate and behave within sacred spaces, and how their meaning will differ between generations and cultures.
What about Mount of Mercy? How did that begin?
My polaroid installation ‘Mount of Mercy’ is part of a larger series of the same name for which I have collected since 2012 – images, hidden letters and discarded objects that were left at Mount Arafat, a hill in the east of Mecca, by pilgrims during the annual Hajj. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon at the top of Mount Arafat, also known as the Mount of Mercy. Participating in prayers on the Mount is considered to be the most important part of the Hajj Pilgrimage.
While walking atop the mountain, hundreds of discarded images can be seen on the ground or hidden among rocks, some with messages written along the edges or back with supplications to the Divine, some taken during the Hajj and other clearly taken abroad and purposely left. These ritual remnants are regularly collected by Saudi police to be burnt, as these actions are not sanctioned. In preserving these discarded objects, I have documented this little talked about ritual by some pilgrims and expanded upon the depictions of collective faith.
Your brother Abdulnasser Gharem is an established artist and you run Gharem Studio along with him. What’s your work relationship with him like? Are you guys looking at any project collaboration in the near future?
I worked with him from 2008 to 2013, which is when we started the studio. At the time of opening the studio, we started inviting young artists to join us and practice arts and creative thinking. The process of working together has changed since then as now we all help each other. In terms of collaboration with Abdulnasser, I think Gharem Studio is the biggest project that we will continue to work on together. We have taken the studio to a good level and have a lot more to do in the future.
Could you tell us more about Gharem Studio as an alternative art space?
Gharem Studio is a non-profit arts organization dedicated to encouraging individual thought and self-expression amongst artists across the Muslim world. Founded in 2013, the studio offers residencies, art education, career guidance, resources, equipment, promotion and opportunities for exhibitions both in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
So far, the studio has staged exhibitions at the US ambassador’s residence in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as worked closely with the British Council on a series of workshops with Professor David Rayson, Head of Painting at the Royal College of Art, London. And we have also had ten shows in ten different cities in the US.
In a statement about Gharem Studio, you have said, “Artists are repressed in the Arab world—they haven’t been given the space to find a role, so they just roleplay.” Can you tell us how Gharem Studio is helping the younger generation of artists?
Artists need to be around each other. No one is going to support them if they don’t support each other. The studio was created to be an island for young artists where they can express their ideas through art. Gharem Studio provides space for thinking and producing ideas and for meeting different artists. “Mentally”, it’s a new home.
Evoking feelings of imprisonment and anxiousness by way of its caged structure, while also representing Muslims’ center of prayer, this mosque invites all visitors, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, to question how we designate and behave within sacred spaces, and how their meaning will differ between generations and cultures.
How does Saudi Arabia inspire you and your work?
The country is changing so fast. I am not looking for an inspiration; I am just waiting for the reactions.
The effect of globalization on the Saudi culture is an important theme of your work. Tell us a bit about that.
Saudi is a huge country with so many different cultures, therefore you have to be in the middle where everyone can reach you and your speech. I have to be smart about bringing people to the field of my thoughts.
Your art wants to bring about change in society. How much do you think you have succeeded so far?
I can’t measure success but I can realize the effects of my works in the way a lot of people are participating in discussions that my works have created.
What role does social media play in your work?
It actually doesn’t play any role in my work, but it does in our society. Social media is a real escape for us. We have the biggest number of active users on Snapchat and the highest number of views on YouTube in the world via phones. This is quite helpful for the artists, as it becomes a platform for discussion.
Who are the artists around the world that you really admire?
I admire great artworks, not artists.
Social media is a real escape for us. We have the biggest number of active users on Snapchat and the highest number of views on YouTube in the world via phones. This is quite helpful for the artists, as it becomes a platform for discussion.
What are some of the things in music/arts/books etc. that really inspire you?
We have a big library in our studio about arts and culture for which we had bought books from abroad as you can’t get art books in Saudi. These books have been a real inspiration for me.
What’s on your mind currently?
The big changes happening in my country right now. Cinema, art institutes, foundations, and museums.