Why does a small museum in Amsterdam have more Facebook likes than the Louvre in Paris or the Guggenheim Museum? How does a Dutchman who has never been in Saudi Arabia start collecting Saudi art? And what’s a yellow cow doing in a green box?
On the fifth floor of an office building in the Dutch capital, there is a room with walls painted green. And that room is full of contemporary art by Saudi artists. Three small video screens, some objects and a lot of paintings. The Greenbox Museum is the brainchild of Dutchman and former banker Aarnout Helb. “I felt that the Dutch were focussing too much on New York and London. It was time to switch the antenna to the other side”, he explains.
In one corner of the room, there is a pile of what looks like cheese boxes and milk packages. But instead of the famous 'La vache qui rit' image, there is a yellow cow printed on it. It is part of Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad Aseeri's Yellow Cow project, in which he also coated a real cow with yellow paint. The project is intended as a critique of ‘Western’ consumerism.
Ahmed Mater was the first Saudi artist Helb contacted in 2007. Coincidentally, both Helb and Mater were inspired by the same Koranic phrase: Sourat al-Baqqara, that speaks of a yellow cow that is “a pleasure to look at”. For Helb, the story of the yellow cow was a sign of aesthetics having a place in Islam. “I googled on 'yellow cow' and 'Saudi-Arabia' to look for information, and then I came across Mater's work.”
Speaking to many
Helb’s museum attracts Dutch visitors, as well as Saudis and other tourists. The Greenbox has a million Facebook likes, an incredibly high number, compared, for example, to the Dutch national museum ‘Rijksmuseum’ (less than 69,000 likes) or the French Louvre (795,000 likes).
“Saudi-Arabia is a central place for Muslims, in other parts of the world but also in the Netherlands,” explains Helb. “When I tell a taxi driver of Moroccan descent in Amsterdam about Saudi art, he immediately tells me his parents went on hajj there. Even though the museum has nothing to do with Islam, people in Pakistan or India see that the art is coming from Saudi-Arabia and like it just for that reason.”
Even though Helb has never been in Saudi-Arabia himself, he knows all the artists personally. The art pieces in his collection are all from artists living and working in Saudi Arabia, because “an artist should not be disconnected from society.”
Helb sees a tension between tradition and modernity in the work of many of the artists he has bought work from. “Ahmed Mater has these two aspects in his own story,” explains Helb. “He is a doctor, a scientist with modern education, but he is also very connected to Saudi traditions.” Mater says he makes ‘evidence-based art’, just like evidence-based medicine. One such experiment: a picture of a magnet encircled by metal shavings, it looks almost the same as the crowds of pilgrims circling the Ka'ba in Mecca during the hajj.
Even if she spent a large part of her life outside Saudi-Arabia, Jowhara Al-Saud is a good example of an artist who integrates Saudi society in her work. She transforms pictures of her friends and family members in ordinary situations to sketched drawings. Since there are no faces shown and backgrounds are changed, the people in the picture stay anonymous. “This allows her to show an intimate situation without breaching Saudi norms of protecting people’s privacy.”
Another example is the performance art of Abdulnasser Gharem, who is artist and army officer in one. In one scene on display in the Greenbox Museum, Gharem is standing in the middle of a road with a tree packed in plastic. “These trees are imported from the West,” explains the curator, “to help improve the environment. But actually they destroy the indigenous trees because they have a different root structure, spreading widely instead of getting deep into the ground. For Gharem this symbolises the Saudi search for Western expertise, which is not always beneficial to the country.”
Ideas not activism
Gharem’s work was subject to censorship several times. His work 'Al Siraat' became part of a censorship row in 2008 in Britain for its presumed criticism of Islam. He was also told to change a work made of stamps (‘Pedestrian Crossing II’) which pictured the Twin Towers and a plane flying into it. Gharem decided to film this process of redesigning his work. Helb has both the original and the adjusted version in his collection.
Some of the works in Helb’s collection are very critical of aspects of Saudi society, but Helb emphasises that criticism is never his aim. “Activist art tends to be utterly boring.”
What he is looking for is artists with ideas. “I am not interested in traditional calligraphy which is beautiful but whoes message I can't read as a non-Arabic speaker. But look at this stone labyrinth form based on calligraphy. I just bought it…” And there he goes again, explaining yet another piece by one of ‘his’ Saudi artists, who are brought together not in Riyadh or Jeddah but in a living-room sized museum in Amsterdam.