The modern Saudi art scene was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 when Abdulnasser Gharem's Message/Messenger replica of a mosque dome partially propped up by a minaret sold in a Christie's auction for a record-breaking $842,000 to an Iranian buyer. It made him the highest-paid living Arab artist in the world.
Gharem, who has spent more than half his life in the Saudi Army and is a lieutenant-colonel, said the piece resembles a trap and is a metaphor for how some ultraconservative clerics in his country use religion to manipulate the masses.
"People say that religion affects people. I see people affecting religion," he said. "The media cannot talk about these issues, but art has a language that needs no translator."
Because art is not taught in public schools or public universities in Saudi Arabia, the money from the sale was donated to an art program for young Saudis.
While Gharem sometimes works on his art in Saudi Arabia, he sends his works abroad because it is banned in the kingdom. Artists working for the Culture Ministry told him his work could not be shown locally because it talks about religion, he said.
In one of his earlier projects, he wrote the word "El-Sirat", which means path in Arabic, over and over again on the remains of a damaged bridge to provoke thought about the word itself, which is repeated at least 34 times a day by Muslims in prayer.
"The path is an individual thing that you create on your own. I am trying to break this idea of moving with the crowd," Gharem said. "People are living in a simulator. I am trying to get people out of this simulator to live their lives."
All three Saudi modern artists interviewed said they have strong backing from members of the Saudi ruling family, but that officials cannot be seen openly supporting works that could draw the ire of the country's religious establishment.
There have been some exceptions, such as Princess Jawaher bint Majed Al-Saud who funds an annual art week in Jiddah. Another well-known supporter is wealthy Saudi businessman Abdul-Latif Jameel who created Art Jameel that supports the London-based art collective Edge of Arabia run by Stephen Stapleton.
Stapleton became involved in Saudi art after a trip to a little-known artist village called Al-Meftaha in 2003. The village, located in Saudi Arabia's southern mountainous region, was a vibrant artist hub when it had the backing of Aseer's governor at the time, Prince Khaled al-Faisal, who is now education minister.
Stapleton went to Aseer after hearing that Britain's Prince Charles had worked in a studio in Al-Meftaha three years earlier.
Stapleton said art has a way of transcending borders that look difficult to cross, especially between Saudi Arabia and the West. Edge of Arabia is planning a two-year-long tour across the U.S. starting this year as a way of "facilitating encounters" between people.
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