In ‘Gonzo Arabia,’ young Saudis offer a vision for kingdom’s future

Andrew Travers | The Aspen Times
At the "Gonzo Arabia" opening (left to right) Ajlan Gharem, Andrew Scott, Dhafer Al Shehri, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, Nugamshi, Bob Braudis and Shaweesh.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Gonzo Arabia: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Aspen’

Where: The Gonzo Gallery, 534 E. Cooper Ave. (upstairs in Boogie’s Retail)

When: Through Sept. 1, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily

More info:

The young Saudi Arabians whom Americans see in the news and popular culture are not, for the most part, hip, Hunter S. Thompson-reading kids. And average American notions of “Islamic art” probably don’t include viral music videos of biting, slapsticky satire. But if you go to the “Gonzo Arabia” art show downtown, those are the people you’re going to meet and that’s some of the art you will see.

The exhibition, housed in the Cooper Avenue space above Boogie’s Retail, includes work by 11 young Saudi Arabian artists. They and their artwork are on a tour of the U.S. put together by the cultural-exchange organization Culturunners, attempting to break down stereotypes and start dialogue – it’s art as diplomacy.

Former Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis — who produced the local show with the Gonzo Gallery and the Open Mind Project — said the goal of the show, like his law enforcement career, is to promote peace.

“The cultural understanding we hope to promote with these artists is very important,” Braudis said Sunday.

Artist Ajlan Gharem constructed a mosque out of fencing material titled “Paradise Has Many Gates.” In a photo of the piece in the “Gonzo Arabia” show, a group of worshipers are distracted by a neon light at the center of the mosque and are ignoring the imam attempting to lead them in prayer.

Gharem, 30, said the piece is not a commentary on Islam but on religion in general — it could be a church or any house of worship, he said, and carry the same message. Gharem noted that 70 percent of Saudi Arabians are currently younger than 40 and 50 percent younger than 30. This ascendant and more secular generation, he argued, isn’t bound by religious authority in the way elders may have been.

“The thing about us in this younger generation is that the knowledge is getting higher than the level of belief,” he said at June 30’s opening. “The older generation has more beliefs and less knowledge. … We’re not stuck in this traditional mentality.”

The artists wanted to bring the massive mosque to the Aspen show, but it was too big for the Boogie’s balcony. Braudis brokered a deal with local veterans groups from the U.S. wars in the Middle East to host the mosque in Veterans Park, but he said that idea was scuttled when the shipping logistics proved too complicated.

The exhibition opening included a live painting by the muralist Nugamshi. Responding to Aspen’s political history and the Gonzo pedigree of the show, he made a large-scale Arabic interpretation of the Thompson quote “Morality is temporary, wisdom is permanent.” (At Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this summer, he painted a similar mural using crude oil.)

The young Saudi artists also made a pilgrimage to Gonzo Mecca during their time in town, spending July 2 on Thompson’s property at Owl Farm, where Wilderness Workshop was hosting its annual Wildfest benefit.

“I was flipping out,” the artist Shaweesh said the next day.

Shaweesh’s work plays with Western pop culture and Middle Eastern history — inserting Darth Vader, for instance, in a portrait of dignitaries at the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 and dropping Captain America into a photo of Palestinian refugees in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. His sepia-toned images are placed under newspaper headlines, one of several examples of these artists’ commentary and criticism of media.

In a panel discussion Sunday, Braudis asked the artists whether they had experienced any censorship of their work in Saudi Arabia. Shaweesh noted that the show was sponsored by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a Saudi government entity funded by the state oil company Aramco, and said the kind of subversive approach that he and his cohort have taken is welcomed in the kingdom.

“The government is open to anything,” he said. “The only thing you have to care about is not to shock people. It has to happen gradually, organically. … You can say whatever you want. Just don’t say it to the wrong people.”

Some of the most pointed commentary in the show is in the playful, absurd and often hilarious videos by Telfaz 11 — a collective that includes Shaweesh and other “Gonzo Arabia” artists. These extraordinarily popular YouTube videos — topping 190 million views to date — play with Western stereotypes about Middle Easterners and Muslims. Several of them are playing on a loop with subtitles at the gonzo show, including “Screw Infidels,” a wildly satirical rap video and song that lampoons the notion of Arabs as fundamentalist terrorists. It features a pair of tie-dye-wearing, stone-faced radicals on a sort of prankster intifada: urinating in an American’s hot tub, for instance, and burning another’s toilet paper.

Abdulnasser Gharem — Ajlan’s brother — critiques Saudi Arabia’s bureaucratic establishment by playing with government stamps. His “In Transit” shows a plane taking off behind the hazy mosaic of a passport stamp.

Photographer Dhafer Al Shehri’s work in the show includes stunning photographs of massive crowds bent in prayer at Mecca. Shehri said he’s interested in the control of crowds by religious figures. When the “Gonzo Arabia” artists made a tour stop in Houston earlier this summer, he said, he shot photos at a Christian mega-church, where the scene was strikingly similar to what he depicted in Mecca.

The “Gonzo Arabia” artists — some of whose work has shown in prominent U.S. institutions like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York — said they encountered no discrimination in Aspen. Although, Shaweesh said, on the RV trip from Houston to Aspen a man in Buena Vista asked if they were going to blow up the town.

Braudis, Gonzo Gallery founder D.J. Watkins and the Open Mind Project’s Andrew Scott said that when they teamed with Culturunners, they tried to bring the exhibition to more prominent local venues like the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas Festival and the Aspen Art Museum but had no luck getting local organizations to sign on.

“We went out of our way to find a venue and to find partners,” said Watkins, whose gallery vacated its Hyman Avenue location earlier this year.

They received permission from Boogie and Bo Weinglass to use the space formerly occupied by Boogie’s Diner and went to work converting it into a serviceable art gallery, which it will be until Sept. 1.

“Skiers have a saying that the ski down has to be worth the climb up,” Braudis said during Sunday’s panel of the effort. “What happened here at the eleventh hour made the ski down well worth summiting Everest, which this felt like at times.”

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