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Climate change is the ‘defining war’ of our time, warns Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem in New York

DUBAI: Dozens of light and dark gray rubber stamps form a map of the world on an aluminum board hanging on the wall. Observed from afar, it looks like a painting. But “Climate Refugee” – a new work by renowned Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem – is not meant to be watched from afar. As one approaches, the true message of the work becomes clearer. Tiny blue and turquoise stamps are placed in areas with the most refugees. And embedded in the work are phrases that include: “When innocent immigrants are killed, it is neither a moral failure nor a sin, merely a technical error.” And “refugee camps are optimal forms of mercy killings.” And “The appearance of aliens threatens our way of life.”

The work sheds light on the global refugee crisis shaped by what Gharem calls “economic violence,” as climate change is accompanied by an increase in physical and psychological barriers affecting humanity. “Climate Refugee” is one of 10 new works juxtaposed with several older ones on display in Gharem’s “Hospitable Thoughts” – his first solo exhibition in New York – which runs until December 18 at Marc Strauss.

“Climate Refugee”, a new work by renowned Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, is not meant to be watched from afar. (Provided)

“Geographical distances are no longer barriers to movement; the main refugee highways are becoming increasingly diverse, especially as we live in a world characterized more than ever by an inequitable distribution of ability and freedom of movement,” Gharem writes in his statement for the show. “Wars are not the only cause of migration…global warming and climate change can be direct causes of the formation of new immigrants.”

In “Hospitable Thoughts,” Gharem’s artistic journey literally and figuratively returns to the origins of his creative journey, which he says was deeply scarred by the events of 9/11. His new work, shown in the city where the cataclysmic attacks took place, struggles with the theme of barriers – mental, social and physical – that has shaped his art ever since.

Gharem’s “Prosperity Without Growth II” uses rubber stamps to depict a colorful Byzantine-style mosaic featuring three men. (Provided)

Gharem was in his hometown of Khamis Mushait when the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York took place. When he heard the names of the Saudi hijackers, four of whom were also from Khamis Mushait, he realized that two of them had been his classmates. Ever since then he has wondered why these men – well-educated and well-mannered – were driven to do what they did while he was becoming an artist. Gharem recalls how he and several other Saudi artists, including Ahmed Mater, Ashraf Fayadh and Abdulkarim Qassim, working at Al Muftaha Art Village in Abha, were deeply depressed by the events of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, as well as growing international hostility towards the Saudis and the Kingdom’s extremely conservative political ideology at the time.

“We didn’t know what to do, so we turned to art,” he told Arab News. But while other artists at Al Muftaha Art Village painted in Western styles, Gharem and the previously mentioned artists looked elsewhere for inspiration.

“We wanted to create our own art style, different from the West, with a different medium and subject matter that was inherently ours,” he says.

For the past 21 years, Gharem’s art has championed social justice issues, including through art classes at his studio in Riyadh, where he encourages young Saudis to think creatively. Artists training there also assist him in the painstaking creation of works such as “Climate Refugee”.

Gharem believes we live in a time obsessed with “demolition, production and excessive hysterical violence” aimed at not just humans, but all living organisms and species.

“The defining war right now against all living species is climate change – caused by human neglect and obsession with consumption, hysterical violence,” Gharem told Arab News. “Ultimately, most wars are about the market, the means and the ownership of production, especially (today) when the disparity between haves and have-nots has reached a new height.”

Other works featured in “Hospitable Thoughts” explore notions of authoritarianism and boundaries and their effects on our well-being. Overcoming such barriers in mind and body, Gharem believes, is a way to transcend differences and work towards greater humanity.

In ‘Caged Humanity’, one of the new works on display, hundreds of rubber stamps are arranged in the pattern of interlocking barbed wire. (Provided)

In “Concrete Block V”, “Don’t Trust The Concrete”, “Concrete Wall II” and “Participatory Surveillance” – all made in 2022 – Gharem Recreates uses rubber stamps to recreate man-made barriers found around the world. Elsewhere are works that echo earlier pieces by the artist, such as “The Stamp (Moujaz)” (2022), a large 36 x 40 inch hand-carved wooden stamp with an embossed rubber face, reminiscent of his 2012 work “The Timbre (Inshallah).” There’s also “Prosperity without Growth II” (2020), which again uses rubber stamps to depict a colorful Byzantine-style mosaic featuring three men, one of whom is dressed in traditional Saudi attire. But an amorphous white spot, similar to a damage on an old piece of art, erases about half of the image.

Other works include milestones in his career: “Moujaz Stamp Print” (2013); “The Path (Siraat)” (2007); a pigment print triptych of “Hijamah (Traditional Pain Treatment Performance)” (2015). Many speak of rehearsal, informed by his experience as a colonel in the Saudi army.

“Orders were issued to us, then we repeatedly issued them to others. I felt the harshness of the rehearsal,” he wrote in his statement to the show. “What distinguishes the repetition of letters, numbers and symbols, as well as sentences, in stamp paintings and sculptures is that they are reversed. They represent the mirror image, though reversed in content and intent.

In “Caged Humanity,” one of the new works on display, hundreds of rubber stamps are arranged in the pattern of interlocking barbed wire. The artwork’s cage almost appears to be moving upwards, as if about to erase several of Gharem’s last messages: “Here, all feelings of compassion are eradicated,” it reads. But among them is a sentence that brings hope for the future: “A society without strangers”.

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