Contemporary art Museums Controversies United Kingdom

Two works at centre of UK censorship row end up in Amsterdam museum

Saudi Arabian artist’s work was removed from London show

Abdulnasser Gharem, Al-Siraat (The Path), 2012

Two works by the Saudi Arabian artist Abdulnasser Gharem that were at the centre of a censorship row in the UK are now housed at a small private museum in Amsterdam devoted exclusively to Saudi Arabian contemporary art. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia was founded by the Dutch artist Aarnout Helb in 2008. The museum exhibits works by artists including Ahmed Mater, Reem Al-Faisal, Sami Al-Turki and Kameel Hawa, drawn from Helb’s 40-strong collection.

The collection includes Gharem’s The Path (Al Siraat), 2007, a photograph of an installation the artist created on the remains of a collapsed bridge in the Tihama region of Yemen. In 1982, villagers living beneath it heard about an imminent flash-flood and took shelter on the bridge along with their vehicles and livestock. The flood washed away the bridge and its occupants, killing most of them. With a team of assistants, Gharem spray-painted the abandoned bridge with the word Al Siraat which means “the path” or “the way”, referring to life choices; the word can also refer to the Day of Judgement and the bridge that leads to Paradise.

The exhibition that opened in October 2008 at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), organised by the UK non-profit organisation, Edge of Arabia, was meant to include The Path (Al Siraat). But during the months leading up to the opening of the exhibition in London, it was reportedly suggested that the work could be seen as religiously insensitive and was removed from the show.

On the Greenbox museum website, it states: “Al Siraat became part of a controversy in the British press when it was reported that the work had not been included in the Edge of Arabia exhibition by a decision unclearly defined as having been taken by either a sponsor, guest curators or SOAS.” An Edge of Arabia spokeswoman tells The Art Newspaper, however: “SOAS was unfairly accused of being involved in the censorship and definitely had nothing to do with it.” A different edition of the same work is also on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in the exhibition “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” (until 7 April 2013). Helb also says that another work by Gharem, Pedestrian Crossing, 2008, was censored in the same show.

Helb funds the Greenbox museum himself. “At the moment here in the Netherlands funds are tied in with projects to improve ‘trade relations’ with the Gulf. That means: nice art only. The museum is not about pushing a positive image of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or Dutch trade, but enjoying the art and listening what these guys [the artists] are telling us,” he says.

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29 Nov 12
18:6 CET


There's something about this I don't understand. I saw this work in Dubai, and a video based on The Path at Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah. So it's hard for me to imagine why this piece was 'censored' in London of all places. It is a powerful and though provoking piece. Isn't that one of art's noble intentions?

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