Contemporary Saudi Arabian Artist Builds a Better Mousetrap in "Parallel Kingdom"

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Perhaps he learned how to build the ultimate mousetrap during his stint as a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi Arabian army, but artist Abdulnasser Gharem's mixed-media installation, Capitol Dome, is a precariously balanced show-stopper over at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.

On a massive platform of black plastic (resembling a sea of crude oil) rests the tilted edge of what looks to be the top level from our United States Capitol building, so monolithic that it touches the ceiling. It's similar to our dome within a dome, only this interior features an illuminated golden-hued mosque that bounces its arabesque and geometric patterns onto the reflective pool.

The Statue of Freedom stands enticingly under the structure, balancing war and peace with her sheathed sword and laurel wreath of victory. She (freedom) is the bait, and a massive rope tied around her feet stretches out across the crude into a coil; one quick yank and she is trapped forever. Written in Arabic inside the mosque is the verse “Guide us to the Straight Path,” though the meaning is apparently open to interpretation. In this work, Gharem seems to be referencing the mysterious allure of the West, and the uncertainty of democracy in a post-Arab Spring era. The museum couldn't share an image of the work, but it was on the auction block over at Christie's a few years ago, and this should hold you over until you can view it in person.

"Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia" includes work by a dozen artists from the Saudi Arabian peninsula, including four women. They can't drive, swim, interact with men or venture out without a chaperone, but their voices can be heard through art. In a video by Sarah Abu Abdullah, she “frosts” a junked and stripped car with pastel pink paint, the closest she can get to her dream of ever driving a car. Bottles of detergent — another seemingly feminine tool — have been relabeled by Ahaad Alamoudi and set atop a spinning plinth. In her statement, the artist writes about the constant struggle in Saudi Arabia to cleanse away that which is of low standard or taste. Basmah Felemban illustrates that the contributions of women are often overlooked in history books, while Njoud Alanbari points to the pervasiveness of subliminal and overt cultural messages for women. In video and photograph, schoolgirls draw on Pepto-Bismol®-colored murals that spout advice like “your veil is your virtue” and “do not embody the Jews,” warning that any deviation will lead to drugs, porn, forbidden music and the embodiment of infidels.

While much of our knowledge about this culture is limited or filtered, the exhibit – with its emphasis on young artists – sheds light on the region in both lighthearted and serious ways. Street artist Shaweesh inserts contemporary figures from pop culture onto the cover pages of vintage newspapers: Darth Vader is the guest of honor during the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty, Yoda is present during the Charter of the United Nations of 1945, and Captain America takes a stance in yet another. Ahmad Angawi also references the past with his lenticular print that juxtaposes a 19th-century print of the Masjid Al-Harram with a modern take. Gharem, who sculpted Capitol Dome, is perhaps the most outspoken, merging decorative elements with objects of war against a textured backdrop of Roman and Arabic letter-form stamps.

Performance artist and calligrapher Nugamshi paints with oil but it's the “black gold, Texas tea” medium. The video where he brushes large Arabic characters onto glass and then smashes it is quite mesmerizing and, weather permitting, viewers might also see his work on the exterior wall of the museum. In the front parking lot is installed Paradise Has Many Gates by Ajlan Gharem, which is open during the day for those who remove their shoes. The photographs inside indicate it has been used for actual performance and worship events, changing its look from day to night.

“Parallel Kingdom: Contemporary Art From Saudi Arabia” continues through October 2, at Station Museum of Contemporary Art, 1502 Alabama, open Wednesdays to Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 713-529-6900, stationmuseum.com. Free.

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