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Saudi art surprises at Arab American museum

posted on: Sep 14, 2017



When Americans think of Saudi Arabia, they tend to think of limited civil liberties and heavy-handed censorship — not to mention that issue of women not being able to drive.

So clearly there can’t be any modern art of consequence, right?

“Epicenter X: Saudi Contemporary Art” at the Arab American National Museum, up through Oct. 1, challenges glib assumptions about a complex society with artwork that’s intriguing and affecting both.

“Asylum of Dreams” by Qamar Abdulmalik, a Palestinian woman living in the Saudi kingdom, is one of the most delightful.

Abdulmalik reinvents the vexingly difficult arcade game where a joystick controls a claw you manipulate to try to grab one of the prizes at the bottom of a glass box.

Here, however, the prizes are passports for the desperate and stateless. Depending on which country you snag — choices include Lebanese, German, Israeli and American passports — your fortunes may or may not improve.

As a comment on the arbitrary nature of international asylum, it’s pretty winning — and only costs 25 cents to play.

Amr Alnagmah’s mixed-media “Digital Spirituality” locates Mecca’s celebrated Ka’bah, the black cube the faithful circle during the hajj, at the center of an exotic-looking circuit board.

The electronic board makes a convincing map, as seen from far above, while the Ka’bah looms commandingly in the middle. As a composition, it’s oddly captivating.

One of the most visually compelling pieces juxtaposes a 19th-century photo of central Mecca and the Ka’bah, surrounded by ancient buildings, with a contemporary image of glitzy high-rises looming above what remains of traditional architecture. More than anything, “Wijha 2:148 — And Everyone Has a Direction to Which They Should Turn” by Ahmad Angawi underlines the staggering change in fortunes the desert kingdom has experienced over the past century or so.

The war on terror gets a once-over with “Men at Work I-IV” by Abdulnasser Gharem. In each of the four panels, we’re looking up a chute decorated with gorgeous Islamic motifs, at the top of which silhouettes of four “western soldiers,” as the accompanying label notes, stare down at the viewer.

As a design, it’s quite beautiful — and all in all a little menacing.

Finally, mixing American pop culture and history in a delightful mash-up is one-name artist Shaweesh’s “Darth of Arabia — Arabian Envoy Host Guest of Honor during Versailles Peace Treaty.” The black-and-white photo captures French, British and Arab diplomats posing during the Versailles Conference that ended World War I, and drew the national boundaries of the Arab states — lines crafted by Europeans that have caused no end of trouble ever since.

Right behind T.E. Lawrence, or “Lawrence of Arabia,” in the picture stands our very own Darth Vader, a head taller than anyone else and staring straight out at the viewer.