Abdulnasser Gharem: Pause

Do yourself a favour, go see a point of view from Saudi Arabia that’s mainly ignored by the media these days. Pause by Abdulnasser Gharem is at LACMA. Rush to it before it closes on July 2, 2017. Here is why…

Abdulnasser Gharem, Hemisphere and Ricochet, LACMA

September 11, 2001 changed the world as we knew it, for all of us. And here it is, creeping in, the “us” which goes with, or rather against, “them”.

The self-perpetuating lack of understanding feeding only more violence. That knee-jerk reaction of protecting ourselves by closing off when we are in a state of shock and feeling under attack. We can’t begin to understand what happened and is still going on to this day…

Don’t you wish we could hit Rewind and Stop? Erasing the bad dream…

Instead, hit Pause at LACMA and look intently at Abdulnasser Gharem ‘ s powerful perspective.

Gharem is from Saudi Arabia. He is a Muslim, an Arab, a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army and he discovered that two of the 9/11 hijackers were old classmates.

What do you do when the World Trade Center collapses, when the world you think you knew becomes fractured right in the middle?

Abdulnasser Gharem, Hemisphere, LACMA

Gharem turned to seeking knowledge and studying art, teaching himself via the Internet to express what he felt then and now, trying to make sense of our post 9/11 world.

Still in the army, he tries to make a difference with art and educational projects to link East and West, opening minds instead of closing them. Trying to show there are independent paths out there, that it is possible to resist brainwashing while still getting the rubber stamp that runs his country.

Abdulnasser Gharem,  The Stamp (In accordance with Sharia Law), LACMA

With Hemisphere, Gharem illustrates this prevailing ambivalence. There is faith – symbolised by the characteristic green half dome taken from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina – and there is warfare – the other half of the sculpture being a late Islamic-style warrior helmet.

Yet you sense that the neat separation between the two is a visual artifice to make us understand how distorted reality actually is. Meaning, nothing is so clear-cut in Saudi Arabia.

There is similar emphasis on a clear separation in Road to Mecca (2014) where Non-Muslims are signed to exit.

Abdulnasser Gharem, The Road to Mecca, LACMA

And again in Pause itself.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Pause, LACMA

Pause presents the Twin Towers in shades of pale grey but it is not your usual oil painting. This is stamp-painting, composed of minute rubber stamps, referencing the overwhelming Saudi bureaucracy, “these stamps (…) delaying our dreams, delaying our goals, wasting our life” as Gharem says.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Pause, LACMA


The air and smoke plumes around the towers are made of Arabic character stamps while the towers are made of various letter stamps from the Roman alphabet. Let’s Pause on that…

Again, a clear separation which should not be…and once you’ve noticed this, you will pick up on all the raised up phrases, written back to front and right to left. You will spend time reading these fine prints, pausing and pondering on the divide left to bridge. On the importance of knowledge as a form of resistance…

Abdulnasser Gharem, detail from Pause, LACMA

Gharem cleverly uses rubber stamps as a material carrying both social and artistic meaning. Yet, when he makes that same stamp a subject (in The Stamp), the emphasis shifts to what’s granted approval, forcing a healthy questioning of validity and authority.

Abdulnasser Gharem, In Transit, 2015
Abdulnasser Gharem, In Transit, 2015

And then come In Transit and Ricochet, mixing the imagery of an ignited plane turned bomb with the sheer beauty of traditional Islamic motifs, all unraveling in an explosion of colors.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Ricochet, LACMA

Gharem vividly links our 9/11 memories with very traditional forms of Islamic art such as arabesques and muqarna motifs found in architectural vaulted ceilings. True to the cultural influences of his native Saudi Arabia, he delivers a visual punch, striking from a distance and revealing many additional layers as you get closer.

Abdulnasser Gharem, Ricochet, LACMA

The visual pull seems to give and take. To me, the rubbery texture is the mitigating effect. The matte effect of the rubber stamps amortizes the viewer’s sensations from the visual blow of the images. At the same time, the reverberating Islamic motifs almost physically shake you to look back in.


I think of the letterpress keys painfully assembled on these monumental canvas, forcing attention to the raised up fine prints. They are not easy to read backwards but Gharem’s entire body of work is not meant to be easy.

It’s about reflection and reflexion. It’s about trying to read backwards. About trying to look in the mirror and put yourself in other people’s shoes, life, beliefs and culture. Trying to see the world we live in not simply through one set of values.

It’s about access to and acceptance of knowledge to identify the dangers of encountered paths, with art being one small conduit to give change a chance.

Abdulnasser Gharem, The Path, LACMA

Thank you, Abdulnasser Gharem. I did not know your art until last week.

Now, I am never going to forget your name and I wish your co-initiative Edge of Arabia all the success it deserves.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


6 thoughts on “Abdulnasser Gharem: Pause

  1. Another beautiful and thoughtful blog, Ingrid. I wish I had your imagination and talent. I learn something new from you with each entry. I so look forward to hearing from you. Sheila

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, dear Sheila! I tried to fit in a few exhibitions while working in LA and Gharem’s work was a refreshing discovery, something that surprised me, kept on opening so many layers and forcing me to think deeply… unlike some other works which I will share next week 😉 That’s what I love about art, the highs, the lows, the thoughts in between…I agree, let’s catch up soon! 😘


  2. This post is interesting and forces me to think !!!

    I understand the representation of Twins Towers, Gharem uses rubber stamps to evoke the crushing of the Saudi authorities … In fact, for me the gray color demonstrates the drama of the life of the Saudis and … of this tragic event.
    Is the use of the rubber stamp intended to cushion the violence of reality ? Gharem seeks to make us understand what in reality is not understandable in our Western culture …

    Yes, to think …. Trying to see the world in which we live by the eye of the other …. it is a huge work on each of us ….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, but it’s so necessary to try as otherwise violence will never end.
      Gharem’s work was truly a big moment for me, a major coup de foudre, so I am so glad it resonated with you too x


  3. It is too complicated to see and to understand Gharem’s art about a so serious subject that violence and destruction of symbolic monuments and more thousand lifes.
    But your blog enables me to think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad the blog helps you think about it. Gharem’s works are such a beautiful canvas to start a conversation, at least. Let’s do it when I next see you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s