SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a growing art scene in Saudi Arabia. It's got daring visual artist, unheard of just a few years ago. And they have become a critical voice in the conservative kingdom, where open calls for reform are a criminal offense. NPR's Deborah Amos recently met the leader of this new generation of Saudi artists. She caught up with him in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Abdulnasser Gharem doesn't have the background that you might expect for a successful artist, let alone one known for edgy work. He was once a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi army. He went to high school with two of the 9/11 hijackers. His first major work sold at auction for a whopping $842,000. It's a glittering dome of a mosque set on its side like an animal trap, capturing a dove.
Are you the most famous artist in Saudi Arabia?
ABDULNASSER GHAREM: I don't care. I don't care. I don't care. I'm just focusing on my own mission. And this - I want to play my own role in this society, which will make me happy, and I can see the result.
AMOS: In his busy workshop, musicians are playing in the kitchen. A photographer is arranging images on a white wall. Forty-one-year-old Gharem gives young artists the help he never got.
GHAREM: When I was struggling as a kid, I want to see the museum. I want to see the real paintings. I want to talk to the artists, how they are thinking.
AMOS: The Internet connected him to the larger art world. He opened an art foundation with the money he earned from his first sale. In June, he's leading a tour of Saudi artists across the U.S. to show their work. There are plenty of talented artists in Saudi, he says.
GHAREM: The problem is they don't know how to deal with it, you know. They don't have the strategy. They don't have even the guidance what to do, so that's my mission.
AMOS: He aims to show Saudis how to see and how to think critically. He knows about extremism firsthand with the classmates-turned-hijackers he knew as a teenager. He insists art is an answer, a way to pose sensitive questions about ideology and religion.
GHAREM: If you'll give them a space where at least they can speak freely -and I think that's what's missing in this country. If you go school, you cannot say what you want. If you go to mosque, you cannot say what you want.
AMOS: This is a free space.
GHAREM: Exactly. You will see how they became different.
AMOS: The art produced here is different. It's daring visual critiques of Saudi culture. Performance videos play on a TV at the workshop.
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AMOS: This one is a satire. It's a group of solemn Saudi men sketching a plastic mannequin, a nude female. This act is so taboo in Saudi Arabia, the mannequin had to be shipped in from Dubai and cut up into numbered pieces to get past Saudi custom officials.
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AMOS: Another artist, a young woman, examines problems in female education.
NJOUD MOHAMMED ALANBARI: My name is Njoud Mohammed (ph) Alanbari.
AMOS: She creates art from the government-approved posters found in public schools. The posters are mostly pink. The messages are mostly harsh, a long list of no's.
ALANBARI: No music, no pornography, don't travel. In public schools, it's all over the place. It's, like, it's so, like, intense. It's everywhere.
AMOS: A drawing of a sword underlines every no. Alanbari plays with the official images, for example, sticking in a monkey's head instead of a woman's, forcing a viewer to take a fresh look.
AMOS: This video is called "Traditional Pain Treatment," and Gharem explains.
GHAREM: It's cupping. You know cupping?
AMOS: Traditional pain - yes, cupping.
A fellow artist is filmed enduring traditional bloodletting with glass cups that are heated and placed on his skin. There's a map of the Middle East inked across his back.
GHAREM: So we said we need to take (laughter) the bad blood from all the countries the bad ideology. I mean the bad ideology, the bad, you know, politic, the bad economic, the - everywhere.
AMOS: Conceptual art is new in Saudi, a visual language that's easily understood by a young generation steeped in Internet culture. But it flies by the Saudi censors.
GHAREM: Visually, you can say it because no one can accuse you with an image. But if you're going to write or text or say something, it's easy to accuse you.
AMOS: You won't go to court for an image.
GHAREM: Yeah, exactly, for an image. OK. If you don't like it, you can put it down.
AMOS: In a country where poets and writers have faced harsh punishment in jail, Gharem and his band of young artists are pushing the boundaries of free expression, not with the word but with the image. Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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