Jeddah Blog

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Archive for the category “Art & Culture”

Divani Calligraphy Workshop

Isn’t calligraphy beautiful? Art and meaning, style and substance, body and soul. An upcoming Calligraphy workshop for women caught our eye. Details are below.


Divani Calligraphy Basics Workshop

Roat ur Resalah: Beauty of the Message Art Expo

Roat ur Resalah, or Beauty of the Message, is an Annual Arabic calligraphy exhibition organised by the Consulate General of Pakistan, Jeddah, from 1 to 4 May 2014 at Red Sea Mall, Jeddah.

The timings are 11 am to 11 pm. Calligraphy workshops will also be arranged during exhibition. An event not to be missed.

Photo: Artists will be also be working live

Artists will be working live.

Roat ur Resalah is the name of this Art Expo which will exhibit vibrant and distinctive features of Islamic art as developed in various Arab and Islamic lands. The appeal of this art transcends time and space regardless of the country where it was created.

Arabic script has been an important constituent of Islam’s cultural heritage. Among Muslims, the art of lettering is connected with religious emphasis on reading the scripture. With this emphasis, the artistic expression of Arabic script has attracted all segments of Muslim societies throughout centuries and across the Islamic world. Arabic script has been an important constituent of Islam’s cultural heritage. The understanding and appreciation of this form of art was not, however, limited to Muslims. In later centuries, the Christian kings of Europe used Arabic inscriptions and calligraphic designs to decorate their palaces, furniture and coins.

The exhibition will highlight the continuity of tradition of calligraphy which goes back to the time of Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab (May Allah be pleased with him) and Caliph Ali (May Allah be pleased with him). In various Islamic lands this tradition has been carefully nurtured and enriched, particularly in Pakistan where it constitutes country’s primary cultural identity and heritage.

Islamic Architecture

Majestic domes and minarets, ornamented pulpits of mosques and religious schools, palaces, courtyards, beautiful gardens with water fountains and fragrant roses, spacious caravanserais and tombs decorated with patterned brickwork, tile mosaic often in blue, golden and green, splendid molded mihrab facings with columnar bands of Quranic inscriptions, sophisticated geometrical and floral engravings and high ramparts. These features characterize magnificent Islamic architecture. Today, this architecture constitutes identity of Islamic civilization. The Art Expo will celebrate the glory of Islamic architecture in beautiful paintings.

Islamic Miniature

The origin of miniature art is attributed to the Umayyad doctors who had commissioned painters to develop illustrated training manuals for scientific explanations. Miniature illustrations were, inter alia, utilized to show important scenes as well as acts of war and peace in popular legends and stories such as Alf Laila wa Laila, Dastaan Amir Hamza, Qissa Yusuf Zulaikha etc. With the passage of time, miniature became an integral part of Arab, Persian, Turkic and Pakistan’s Islamic art traditions. In Pakistan, it has acquired the status of national art under the rubric of the Mughal Art. The Art Expo will showcase this cultural delicacy in its true colours and technique.


In many Muslim lands, craftsmen treated wood as a precious resource. They learned to use small pieces of it to great artistic advantage, elaborating such techniques as carving and marquetry, in which a surface is entirely covered with little pieces of wood veneer laid side-by-side to form patterns. Roat ur Rasalah will showcase some of the exquisite pieces of furniture as developed in South and South East Asia.


Quilt Exhibition in Jeddah

Thanks to fellow blogger Lyn Birrell for giving us the heads up about the upcoming Quilt Exhibition for families in Jeddah.


Quilting Exhibition, Jeddah

Experience Contemporary Arabia at Ayyam Gallery, Jeddah

Ayyam Gallery Jeddah will be presenting Contemporary Arabia, a multimedia exhibition featuring a selection of established and emerging Arab artists, including Samia Halaby, Tammam Azzam, and Shaweesh, to be held 5 May until 13 June 2014.

Contemporary Arabia will mark the first time a broad survey of Ayyam Gallery’s stable of artists has been shown in the Kingdom. Representing several generations of painters and photographers from across the region, this forthcoming group show will highlight the myriad ways that today’s painters and photographers are exploring the
intricacies of modern life through such themes as the impact of globalisation, the presence of militarised conflicts, and the oversaturation of media that has redefined our everyday existence. Other points of departure include explorations of form, such as visceral uses of colour, symphonic brushwork, and ethereal compositions, as springboards for sensory associations.

Nihad Al Turk Celebration, 2012 Mixed media on canvas  180 x 200 cm

Nihad Al Turk Celebration, 2012 Mixed media on canvas 180 x 200 cm

In his ongoing Dream series, Syrian painter Safwan Dahoul unearths the psychology of solitude, depicting moments of crisis as a place of confinement, whether the death of a loved one, periods of estrangement, or the onset of political conflict. Through a recurring female protagonist whose Pharaonic eyes and calligraphic body situates her fragile state as of a phenomenon from time immemorial, Dahoul underscores the fragility of man amidst the variability of experiential realities.

Safwan Dahoul Dream 54, 2011 Acrylic on canvas 200 x 200 cm

Safwan Dahoul Dream 54, 2011 Acrylic on canvas 200 x 200 cm

In a playful body of photographs, Saudi artist Huda Beydoun explores the anonymity of public spaces and the interactions of random passersby as daily happenings unfold on city streets. During a trip to Morocco, Beydoun captured the scenes of her Tagged and Documented series by focusing on the routine action of urban settings while also framing the details of the different environs that define social organisation although outwardly banal.

Adorning her subjects with Mickey Mouse heads in silhouette and matching attire, she adds a sense of whimsy with a nod to the reach of consumerist culture to what might otherwise constitute as rituals of the mundane. Palestinian painter Oussama Diab utilises a conceptual approach to painting by appropriating the iconic markers and styles of seminal art movements to underscore the complexities of political conflict and exile.

Ranging in neo-expressionist canvases employing symbolist imagery derived from popular culture to a more recent realist body of work that places images associated with violence in settings that are historically reserved for sanctified subjects, Diab locates the intersections of visual culture and politics, emphasising how imagery has become one of the most powerful forms of mediation.

Mouteea Murad Trial No. 68, 2012 Acrylic on canvas 170 x 170 cm

Mouteea Murad Trial No. 68, 2012 Acrylic on canvas 170 x 170 cm

The exhibition will also feature artists engaging regional traditions such as Syrian painter Mouteea Murad who reinterprets the aestheticised harmony of Islamic art and adheres to its bases in spirituality, mathematics, and the natural sciences. Through vivid, geometrically precise compositions, Murad articulates a sense of splendour in the world around him as confirmation of the sublime.

Exhibition Facts

Ayyam Gallery Jeddah
Opening Reception: Monday, 5 May from 7:00-9:00pm
Exhibition Dates: 5 May – 13 June 2014
Location: Bougainvillea Center Jeddah, 3rd floor
King Abdulaziz Road, next to Stars Avenue
Al-Zahra District, Jeddah
Tel: +966 12 613 4111

 – Text and images courtesy of Ayyam Gallery

Opening: Ali Ferzat & Emy Kat Solo Exhibitions

Two upcoming exhibitions this April by Ali Ferzat and Emy Kat at the Athr Art Gallery, Jeddah.

Ali Ferzat Solo Exhibition
Opening: Sunday, 13th of April, 2014 at 7.30 pm
Exhibition Dates: 13 – 30 April, 2014
5th Floor, Space 01, Athr Gallery
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Let’s speak all languages ​​without a language…
“The Mischievous Caricaturist”, with this description begins his journey from the city of Hama; an artist who revealed the beauty of everything around him. He comes up with an idea which in return ignites your imagination and makes you wonder if you can realize it?

After a while, you begin to see the dream and fantasy turning into a reality…
Since his early memory in Hama and throughout the time of publishing the independent periodical, Al-Domari “The Lamplighter”, his story has been a constant struggle that doesn’t know defeat nor does he surrender to hesitation and frustration. Even when they broke his hands to make him stop him from drawing they failed and achieved the contrary. That horrible incident didn’t hinder him, instead it fuelled him and enabled him to add more shine and glamour to his creativity and consequently kept him influential as usual.

Emy Kat Solo Exhibition
Opening: Sunday, 13th of April, 2014 at 7.30 pm
Exhibition Dates: 13 – 30 April, 2014
RF floor, Space 02, Athr Gallery
Jeddah, Saudia Arabia
Mohamed Alkhatib a.k.a EMY KAT has travelled around the world in search of new and interesting heights. Living between New York, London and Paris. Alkhatib has chosen to settle in the “city of light” Paris and opened his own private studio. Always seeking to experience various ways to initiate conversations between expression and the places he has been. In  2009 he set off to rediscover his Middle Eastern heritage in his series Souls on the Streets in Marrakech.

Immersed in his research, Alkhatib went back in 2011 to the main source of his enquiry, the city of his birth, Jeddah, where he grew up. He started to work on a new project supported by patrons who believed in his project, he lived in the heart of Jeddah’s Old Town (Al Balad) for three months. Like many other cities around the world that only unleash their secrets to those they love. The city was telling him about its struggle, sending signs to him like a messenger carrying its key, it displayed its beauty even though it looked abandoned, it displayed various colours, even though they seem faded, the colours forever retained their heritage. Places and light invited him to enter and whispered to him “come, get closer and immerse yourself in my beauty, that which I only show to those who seek it”.

This experience produced a series of photographs, Athr Gallery presents to you, in hope to find a hint of the aforementioned beauty.

Interview with Zahid Jamal, RJ of Bindas Radio

Zahid Jamal grew up as an expat in Jeddah. Having developed an interest in the Urdu language, and hosting shows at school, he went on to not only become a successful chartered accountant with one of the Big Four firms, but also moonlights as an RJ with UK-based Bindas Radio.

In this interview he chats to Jeddah Blog about what it was like growing up in Jeddah, his career, passion for working in radio and his feelings about the city he once called home.

Bindas 1

Tell us about your connection to Jeddah.

I grew up in the streets of Al-salama, Al-Rowda and then Al-Aziziah in Jeddah where I was raised as Zahid Jamal. I saw Jeddah transforming from old to new in the 90s and have seen all the new extravagant structures constructed in front of my eyes. Although I hail from Karachi, I consider myself more a Jeddawi.

Living as an expat in Jeddah, how did you manage to forge a connection with your home country, and especially to the Urdu language?

I was educated at the Pakistan International School Jeddah(PISJ), in Aziziah, spending the usual weekends picnicking in Obhur, beach resorts and playlands like Bahra-tul-Qatar – an oldie would know what I am talking about here. Living in Saudi Arabia, but studying in a Pakistani school and learning to be more Pakistani is one of the phases which every expat would have gone through in KSA. I also went through this phase where I was made a Pakistani in a Pakistani school, as we used to travel on Pakistani passport to and from Pakistan.

We were lucky enough to have watched the Pakistani drama called Tanhaiyan on Saudi Channel 2 in Ramadan, and this was when I was first introduced to Pakistani dramas. My Urdu language skills improved further as I watched not only more Pakistani drams but Moin Akhtar and Anwar Maqsood on PTV (Pakistan’s national television channel). This gave me an opportunity in my school to imitate Moin Akhtar, and I began hosting events at my school. My Urdu teacher once told me to try out for an audition in Radio Pakistan due to my voice and the level of Urdu he recognized in me.

From hosting events at school, how were you introduced to the world of radio?

In 2003, I completed high school and left for Karachi to study chartered accountancy. I realized that Radio Pakistan was an old phenomenon in Pakistan and it was now FM radio stations taking the youth by storm, so I used to listen to the radio while studying for the most complex studies in CA.

In 2006, when I successfully cleared my exams, my passion of hosting and public speaking took me to knock on the doors of those FM stations and ask for an audition. Luckily, there was an upcoming station, HOT FM 105 whose office I spotted by chance as no one knew it would be airing soon. So I went in, gave an audition and was selected. Finally Zahid Jamal transformed into ZJ, as I was neither a qualified RJ nor a DJ, hence I was simply ZJ.

Tell us about your reasons for returning to Jeddah?

I worked in radio for two years while completing my CA articleship with one of the Big Four audit firms, Ernst & Young in Karachi and this was the time when I got a good job offer from E&Y in Jeddah in 2008. I bid farewell to the FM radio in Karachi and decided to return due to the unstable security situation in Pakistan, and my parents living in Jeddah.


From being an expat in one country to another. You then moved on to the UK. What led you there?

I continued my efforts in the E&Y Jeddah office, and joined British online radio, so that I could fulfill my passion in the not-so-bachelor-friendly Saudi Arabia.

In 2010, I was offered a position in E&Y London which I accepted happily due to the reason of being called an expat even when I have spent my entire life in Jeddah. I will always need permission to live there, so I decided to leave Jeddah and settle in London when I had an offer from my own company.

I now work in E&Y London office as an executive auditor and do online radio as an extracurricular activity.

Any old memories of Jeddah you would like to share? What do you miss about this city?

I love Jeddah. Jeddah represents me; it’s global and modern, but the Islamic lifestyle is what I carry wherever I go. It gave me the confidence to work and grow up living and interacting with different nationalities. I miss Ramadan in Jeddah and the food. I call it food heaven; halal food at a reasonable price. Who can forget to mention Al Baik? – always top of my list when I visit Jeddah from time to time.

Due to obvious reasons, it’s not easy for single and young professionals to work and live a lifestyle they want in Jeddah. I assume life is much easier for married couples, especially now that women have started working alongside men, although it’s very hard for expat women to find a job other than teaching.

Also, I don’t see a platform for expats living in KSA to voice their opinions and experiences about the usual life matters they are going through. I found Jeddah blog very useful myself, and I guess Bindas Radio would give another platform to the people living in KSA, especially Jeddah, due to my presence at the radio to share their experiences with the rest of the world.

Tell us about Bindas.

Bindas Radio is a British online radio which is managed from Canada and the UK. We are broadcasting live globally and can be reached through our website . You can also download our app and then we will just be a click away from you. We have RJs from Canada, Saudi Arabia and the UK. We have some more to come from other parts of the world. You can also find us on Tunein which is a radio stations application to listen to any radio in the world.

Although we are playing more Urdu/Hindi content these days, we have international radio presenters, and based on our listenership we will start focusing more on English and maybe even Arabic if there is a demand from listeners. Anyone can listen to our radio.

We are in the startup phase currently and we are coming up with some excellent ideas which will be more beneficial to our listeners. Fingers crossed, there will be much more happening on the airwaves on Bindas.

Dont forget to tune into my shows every Sunday from 3pm – 5pm (GMT) and every Wednesday from 10pm-12midnight (GMT). Keep it locked, keep it Bindas!

You can also follow Zahid via Twitter and Facebook.

Kids’ Art Workshop

Nabeela Parvees, a psychologist, conducts  arts and craft classes for children and ladies. She feels that children in Jeddah spend too much time playing on gadgets and “don’t realise the emotional and social life around them”. Nabeela believes that she understands the importance of creativity in children in their psychological development and is trying her best to impart a little joy to improve their life skills.

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23/03/14 – Glass Painting (Age 6+)
24/03/14 – Fabric Painting (Age 6+)
25/03/14 – Jewelry Making (Age 6+)
26/03/14 – Flower Making (Age 6+)
27/03/14 – Origami (Age 6+)
28/03/14 – Canvas Painting (Age 6+)
29/03/14 – Stick and Paint (Age 6+)
30/03/14 – Inspired Artist Painting (Age 6+)
31/03/14 -Toddler Projects (Age 2- 5)


Mornings: 10 – 11:30 am
Evenings: 6 – 7:30 pm


Near Al Ruwili Hospital (old Naseem Hospital), Bani Malik, Jeddah.

SR 30/ head

Seats are limited. Registration closes on 20th March, 2014. For further information you can email, or visit Nabeela’s Facebook page.

Textile Art Workshops

Looking to pick up a creative skill? Upcoming textile art classes will be held in Jeddah from Tuesday, 18th February 2014. Registration is now open for any of the workshops detailed below.

Workshop Schedule

1 – Stenciling – Tuesday 18th February 2014 (one day workshop)
2 – Batik – Wednesday 19th February 2014 (one day workshop)
3 – Silk Painting – Monday 24th – Wednesday 26 Feb 2014( three day workshop)
4 – Tie & Dye – Sunday 2nd March 2014 (one day workshop)
5 – Shibori – Monday 3rd March 2014 (one day workshop)
6 – Fabric Painting (cotton) – Tuesday 4th March 2014 (one day workshop)
7 – Batik – Wednesday 5th March 2014 (one day workshop)
8 – Silk Painting Advanced Session – Monday 10th March, 2014

You can register via Facebook or by emailing All supplies will be provided.

Location: Rehab jeddah
Timings: 9:00 am- 11:30 am
1 day sessions: SR 125
           3 day sessions: SR 400

Eid in Jeddah

Over three million Pakistani-Indian Muslim expatriates in Saudi Arabia celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr with zeal and fervour on Thursday 8th August 2013. After four weeks of a soul-enriching Ramadan, the Eid festivities starting from Chand Raat (the night before eid) to the three days of Eid are packed with age-old customs, cultural rituals, and social events.

For Pakistani and Indian expats, each and every aspect of Eid in Jeddah is strikingly similar to how Eid is celebrated back home. There is no need to be home-sick. We have everything right here in Jeddah to cure your nostalgia.

Our guest contributor Rohail Khan relays a personal and detailed account of the festivities and celebrations of Eid in Jeddah, written exclusively for Jeddah Blog.

Read more…

‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ by Jowhara Al-Saud

At the intersection of social and visual culture, Jowhara Al-Saud’s  ‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ embodies interesting concerns and questions.

In the Islamic artistic tradition, human representation is surrounded by misconception, myths, and controversy. Sometimes a certain interpretation of religion and sometimes local custom seem to be at cross-purposes with figurative representation. Its status has always depended on locally relevant, hence variable factors.

The equation becomes more complex in Saudi Arabia (or perhaps in the larger context of the Middle East where tradition and law constantly define and impose new limits) where official censorship, a compound of tradition and legislation, brings in an additional variant of legitimacy and limits, of what can be represented and what must not be, of what is appropriate for the private sphere, and what is forbidden in the public sphere, what is allowed ‘under certain circumstances’ and what is ‘simply out of the question’.

The dynamics of censorship, and the constant shifting and manoeuvring between restraint and permission, between approval and disapproval creates pockets of selective permissiveness, in which certain things otherwise forbidden become acceptable after a partial erasure, omission, or addition. This choice reforms the image, and its visual traces become a part of the image when we read it. For example, we might pay more attention to the black ink marks than we would want to, we might spend more time trying to guess what is being glossed over. Our attention and our process of reading are reoriented as a result of this visual tampering. Jowhara Al-Saud, in her series ‘Out of Line’, conducts a visual experiment investigating the visual language that emerges when an image undergoes the transition from inappropriate to appropriate, what it loses, and what it gains in the process. As viewers, it invites us to reinvent both our notion of image as well as our postures of beholding it.

 New pictures, new postures: The title ‘Your Friends and Neighbours’ predisposes us to a certain mindset even before we behold the image

The language of presence and absence: How does the absent influence our reading of the present?

Jowhara starts with a series of pictures from her personal life, pictures of her friends and family. She ‘operates’ on the images, removing certain selected elements (in keeping with the etiquette of censors) by scratching into the negatives, and then reconstitutes the ‘operated’ image back onto film. Although the images are from an intimate circle and the identity of these people is central to the artist’s reading of them, when she decides to share the images in a public manner and a public place, she needs to surgically remove traces of identity, and replace their uniqueness with a more generic, universal quality. She names the selection ‘Your friends and neighbours’, putting the viewer in the middle of the artistic experience.

The metamorphosis of the image from the intimate to the public is a concern that she consciously translated into the guiding exercise for her series, circumventing the local taboo of sharing the personal and private in public. ‘It became a game of how much you could tell with how little’. At several levels, this series (or for that matter, some of Jowhara’s other work) is a visual experiment, and pushes the boundaries of the notion of image, what it means to create it, what it means to read it, and to what extent the image is dependent on or independent of the process and circumstances of its creation.

At face value, the series is a collection of stills from narratives of daily lives. Jaunty, youthful, and pulsing with a joyful energy, they read like snapshots of daily lives that could be from anywhere and about anyone. It’s interesting to see how, as the image mutates from its conventional paradigm, its aura changes. As soon as some factors are suppressed, others rise to the fore. In direct relation to this, our own behavior and expectations as viewers change and we draw upon other elements for our ‘reading’. Traditionally, the locus of an image with humans is the face, we learn to centre our gaze on the face and move outwards from there. In a group of humans, we automatically scan the picture for what sets them apart. Confronted with the images in the series, we are surprised at how seamless and unconscious our re-orientation as a viewer is, and how quickly and naturally we respond to the re-invented paradigm of ‘image’. In the absence of eyes and facial expressions, we latch on to other cues to make sense of the image.

We notice the impact of posture, the body language, the group dynamics, and a general atmospheric charge that leaps off the surface, and which is a function of several elements like the angle of shot, clues suggested by the title, the energy of the lines themselves, or the hint of a lurking backdrop. To reply to the artist’s question then, how much can you express with how little? Apparently, a lot. In fact, if anything, the series proves that the identity of people in the series becomes almost irrelevant, since even with that suppressed, there are innumerable counts on which we can still own the image. There is much that replaces the glint in the eye, the hesitant flicker of eyelids: a dramatically candid camera angle, a naughty tilt of the face, or the query in a gesture of the hand.


A sense of narrative and continuity

It has often been said that the images look like story boards. The narrative mystique is common to other works of Jowhara as well, where she works a constant interplay of the revealed and the hidden up to a delicious suggestivity. This fictional dimension, this reminder that the images are being manipulated and tampered with is deliberately evoked by the reminders of secondary surfaces (the corner of an envelope, a graded work sheet from a school note book, a sheet of fabric, a series of stamps) which jut rudely into the picture plane, coming from nowhere and dissolving into nowhere, it seems. For the artist, it is a conscious concern as an artist to ‘undermine any documentary claim that photography lays claim to’, and to sensitize us to the margin of manouevring inherent in the medium.

Another unreality is the sense of time they embody. They seem to exist in a parallel time zone, where they never snap out of their languorous postures, where the music and holidays never end, where youth is permanent as is the warm embrace of family and friends. This idyllic universe lingers beyond the last frame along a make-believe timeline. They have a quality of frozen perfection, and the recurrence in the sequences creates an illusion of permanence; they are as real and as unreal as the perfect families in yoghurt ads, who seem to go on living in a world where they never age or fight, and where they continue to savour happiness on repeat long after we’ve switched the television off and returned to the imperfection and reality of our own lives.

Forever young, forever happy?

Exploring the metamorphosis of image with the subtraction of some conventional elements inspired by the visual logic and process of censorship and social etiquette, Jowhara creates a crisp new visual idiom.

Naima Rashid

Greenbox Museum: Pure Green Landscape of the mind

Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of the museum of Saudi art in Amsterdam redefines green as well as the limits and power of human thought in a delightful and instructive conversation with Jeddah Blog.

The museum of contemporary Saudi art, Greenbox Museum, is a museum, it is safe to say, like no other. It is ‘kept’ by a man who is, it is safe to say, like few others. The museum is not located, as you would expect, in the well-known cosmopolitan cities of Riyadh or Jeddah, or for that matter, anywhere in the Kingdom or the Middle East. It is located, roughly a continent away, in the city of Amsterdam. It is not housed in a glossy high rise the likes of which dot the Middle East, but in a small and cozy space a little bigger than 6 by 12 square meters, on the fifth floor of an inconspicuous building, a stone’s throw from the better known Van Gogh Museum. Its creator and keeper is not a Saudi or a Muslim, but a Dutch who has never stepped foot inside the Kingdom, but who nonetheless looks to the gates of Mecca for guidance. “In the Quran, I read that Mecca is a guide for all human beings. For the moment, that includes me, and nobody should object.” Ostensibly, the museum’s aim is to serve no purpose but thought alone, and at present, it houses a small but significant collection of works by roughly six Saudi artists, displaying a range of works selected solely for the force of ideas they represent.

Aarnout Helb, the creator and curator of Greenbox Museum of contemporary Saudi art, talks to Jeddah Blog about how the museum came into being, how it stands today, and where he sees it headed.

Aarnout, you are a Dutch who has never visited Saudi Arabia, and yet, you are in a way, the ambassador for its art. Isn’t that just a little bit strange?

Karl May was a German, who never visited America, and was a successful writer of cowboy and Indian stories. I’m no less and no more strange than that.

The museum was born of your connection with Islam. What exactly is your connection with Islam?

My connection with Islam goes back all the way to my childhood. I inherited a box of family memorabilia with a postcard that belonged to my grandfather. It had been sent to him by his uncle. On this postcard, the word ‘Allah Taalah’ was inscribed on the four corners, and my grandfather’s uncle had done the calligraphy himself. He was Dutch, born of a Dutch father and a Javanese mother, himself married a Javanese wife, and converted to Islam.  Apart from the postcard, I received several colourful stories about him in my legacy. So, you can say that Islam was present by token since childhood. Then, living in the Netherlands, I was no stranger to Islam. It has always somewhat ‘been in the air’. To quote an example, Mohammad is the most popular name for newborns in Amsterdam and other big cities here. However, I became involved more directly with it in recent years, when I started reading the Quran myself.

A foot in several cultures: The rare and enchanting legacy that was passed on to Aarnout, and which informed, to a great extent, the course of his life. (Image by Aarnout Helb)

The museum itself was born out of the confluence of a couple of incidents. On a visit to Singapore, in the Malabar mosque, I accepted the Imam’s invitation for a cup of tea, and over tea, I asked him if he could show me where it was written in the Quran that respected and interested travel to Mecca was forbidden to non-Muslims. I’m a lawyer by training, so I wanted to understand what the legislation was that led to this assumption. Well, he couldn’t answer me, and having left the discourse, I’m not really bothered by the question any more – Saudi Arabia is very hot anyways to my knowledge- but to some extent, my museum is the metamorphosis of this legal question. If I couldn’t go to Mecca, I could bring Mecca to me indirectly. I conceived the museum as a virtual voyage to Mecca. Another factor was crucial in the creation of the museum. A Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, who I used to meet at my barbershop, was murdered by a confused young Dutch Muslim. Theo made documentaries, and in his own way, was trying to understand Islam. His manner was often offensive to Muslims, but I do know that he was genuinely trying to understand them and paying them respect instead of ignoring them. The incident made me realize that we are divided in the head, and that nothing will change unless things are not set right in our heads. The museum was conceived as a space for a healthy, open-minded and ongoing discussion, leading people in through curiosity.

From the looks of it, Abdulnasser Gharem was turning the same question over in his mind not so long ago. ‘The Road to Makkah’, stamp painting by Abdulnasser Gharem. Image from

You see the museum as a space of the mind?

Essentially, yes. I collect artworks based on the merit of their ideas, and use them as portals to ideas. I’m hosting a space in which ideas can flow freely, in an open, non judgmental way. My space is very limited in terms of square metres, but  large in terms of the mind. I have long passed the official White Cube museum in terms of facebook ‘likes’. The museum is not about paintings and statues and its intention is not to place art on an elevated position. It is about ideas, visual communication, research, curiosity and all of that in a pleasant way. Wearing a white dress does not mean the world is white and researching what goes on in terms of visual impulses we receive all day, actually strengthens people against all the misleading commercial and political information that is carried around, and which is, more often than not, the cause of misunderstandings and conflicts.

Outside views of the museum.

Limited in square metres, but infinite in possibility, imagination and the power to bridge divides.

Limited in square metres, but infinite in possibility, imagination and the power to bridge divides.

 What’s with the colour green?                                          

‘Talisman X-Ray’ by Ahmed Mater

The merit of ideas alone: ‘Allah’ from ‘The Language of Existence’ by Louloua Homoud.

The green on my walls first of all reflects my wish to take a designated interest. It’s like my statement of purpose. When I established the museum to research what different people make in terms of visual art from Mecca, I still wasn’t clear about the exact direction and about my later decision to house only art from Saudi Arabia. So, taking a cue from the first painting that entered the museum, which happened to be a very green landscape painting by Jan Heyse of a region down south in the Netherlands, I started painting the walls green. While I was still painting the walls, I realized that the color is also that of Islam. At this time, I acquired some work from the series ‘Yellow Cow’ by Ahmed Mater, and later, some more work by Saudi artists through the Edge of Arabia initiative. But I had works by non-Saudi artists as well till this time. The defining moment came when I realized in the course of my correspondence with Saudi artists Lulwah Al-Homoud, Reem Al-Faisal, and Maha Malluh how much they enjoyed this interest in art from their country, and that there was no such museum in KSA itself. That was the moment I decided to remove everything else and collect only works by those who share in having custody of Mecca. Mecca is the symbolic centre of Islam, all Muslims look Mecca-wards while praying. That was the key concept, I thought about the direction of the eyes of all Muslims. In that sense, I’m an artist, I see the oneness of things, and I will not compromise on the conceptual premise by sending eyes in all directions of the world. So, the green on my walls is the stamp of that conceptual commitment.

Do you collect based on a particular criterion? Is there a pattern? How is it going to be in the future?

I go by the ideas that the works represent. My museum is the size and nature of a cabinet of curiosities, and I intend to keep it that way. My aims are modest. I work on a small private budget. I don’t wish to expand beyond a certain limit and get into the whole business of getting sponsors. In the future, I intend to collect two works each year by young artists.

Regarding the whole concept of Islamic art, what is your perspective? Doesn’t concept art and its high creativity clash with the traditionally understood (or misunderstood) role of the artist as a re-arranger or a passive creator instead of an active one?

This is important. The greatest of all Dutch writers that ever lived, Multatuli, noted somewhere that artists and poets are only re-arrangers and never creators. I totally agree with this concept and this small museum – in some ways only an installation of a lawyer with a sketchbook – is of this serving and open minded character. Everything in the museum was handed to me from elsewhere at different moments in time and the only thing I do is take rational decisions, based on all that I know and meet, to channel a process that I earnestly believe that I do not own. My perspective to your question is that the concept of Islamic art is terribly damaging to Muslims. A wise man, perhaps long ago in Isfahan, once wrote on a new dinner plate, in his most accomplished handwriting, that there is only one God and that his name is Allah. The next day, or many years later, a Western ‘art expert’ got his hands on this plate and defined it as being of another God than his own and so completely defeated the artist’s intention. I think, to truly and strongly answer your question, that ‘Islamic art’ is a colonial coinage and definition and that Museums for Islamic art around the world are actually British prisons for the creativity of Muslims. Have you ever noticed how often such museums are consulted by people from European museums with colonial and anthropological collections?  I will tell you this. This little space that is Greenbox Museum breaks free of this tradition and is filled with ideas about the unity of all things. It by far transcends such heavily consulted Arab or Islamic projects in the Gulf or elsewhere, whatever their very best of intentions.

How do you feel about the profile of your museum as it is evolving now, the profiles of visitors and facebook ‘likers’? This museum of contemporary art from Saudi Arabia is attracting ‘likers’ from all over the Muslim world.

The museum has no predictions, no prognosis and no business model. As I said, I think Greenbox Museum transcends what others do in terms of art museums in relationship to Islam. That is how I interpret the ‘likes’ I gather on facebook. They are from Tanger in Morocco to Port Darwin In Australia, where somebody from  Indonesia lives who dresses his young son as a Saudi. The visitors in Amsterdam are less than I would like but there is so much to do here and I take things slowly, not wanting to spend money on advertising.  Most ‘likers’ are now from Indonesia, then Pakistan, and recently, a lot of Muslims from India as well as Algerians and Tunisians have been discovering the museum page. There are now 4500 Saudi Arabians who like the page.

What are the profiles of your real visitors? Do they consciously come looking for Saudi art or are they just dropping in to see just ‘a’ museum? What are their reactions?

They consciously come  looking for Saudi art and sometimes even fly in against my advise but combine it on a first visit to Amsterdam with the Van Gogh Museum. I do have the occasional Dutch lady and gentleman who have seen all other museums. In general, when they come, they spend at least an hour, viewing the work and then discussing with me. Western visitors always have simplistic clichés about Islam and Saudi Arabia and art related to the two, but I hope the museum does its part in realigning their perspective, if not dispelling the clichés altogether.  Of all visitors their surprise is complete, and although personal opinions and reactions vary, they all meet the unexpected. It opens people’s eyes. I think nobody walks out of the museum indifferent.

From what you tell, the museum came about as a happy accident. What would you be doing if you weren’t researching and collecting Saudi art?

‘Only Allah knows the unseen’.

Green is also the colour of fertility. The landscape of our mind is often rife with misconceptions, prejudices and false ideas about the nature of things. More than anything else, perhaps, the green of Greenbox represents the will and the courage to pluck out these weeds and to restore the pure green landscape of the mind.

All images reproduced courtesy the Greenbox Collection unless specified otherwise.


–          Naima Rashid

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