Middle East

Abdulnasser Gharem - the Saudi soldier who moonlights as a conceptual artist

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Media captionAbdulnasser Gharem's first live performance piece, Flora and Fauna

Abdulnasser Gharem is not your average soldier. By day he's a lieutenant-colonel in Saudi Arabia's army - but he leads a double life.

Col Gharem is also one of the most talked about artists in the Gulf. He uses his art to encourage independent thought and highlight the way religion is used - not least because he went to school with two of the hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Go back 20 years and you might have found Abdulnasser Gharem painting landscapes and butterflies, but when the internet came along he used it to find out about 20th Century artists from other parts of the world.

In the early days there were times when Col Gharem would sit in front of his computer for nine hours at a time, slowly downloading images and exploring concepts that would change his life.

He was particularly inspired when he read about the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp and about Dadaism.

The Dada ideal grew up in Europe as a reaction to WWI, attacking conventional definitions of art and established thinking - for Dadaists the ideas behind their work were more important than how it looked.

Image caption Detail from Camouflage

Col Gharem identified with their position. "I was serving in the army with a lot of wars happening around me and the problem was there was no channel where you could find knowledge," he says.

When looking for answers to questions "your family would give some kind of documentary answer from 1,400 years ago and say that's what you should follow, and suddenly the internet just came up and it was a source of knowledge," he adds.

There were no galleries for Col Gharem to show his work in Saudi Arabia, so he took his ideas straight to the street and became a living installation. "Performance is a very effective and strong medium because you just go to the main street and you find the real audience," he says.

Image caption Abdulnasser Gharem surrounded by red and white blocks constructed to look like concrete

In his first live performance piece, Flora and Fauna, he wrapped himself and a tree in plastic sheeting to highlight how imported trees were damaging indigenous ones.

He did this in the south-west city of Abha, which has a population of around 250,000.

"I come from a tribe, a small village and everybody knows [everybody] and the phone calls started between them… and people started to come immediately - the whole city was just looking at me," he says.

"At the beginning they thought I was crazy," he says, but then people started to ask what he was doing, which gave him the chance to explain.

A significant theme that has emerged in Col Gharem's work is the rubber stamp - he makes huge ones as a commentary on the bureaucracy that controls every aspect of life.

Image caption The Stamp – Moujaz

"When you are born you get a stamp, when you get married, even if you need a vacation you need someone to stamp a paper for you… these stamps are delaying our dreams, delaying our goals, wasting our life."

Col Gharem also uses intricate geometric patterns from Arab culture which he intertwines with subtle messages about the way religion and authority are used to influence people. Some of these works reflect on the events of 9/11.

He has a particular interest in the people involved in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001. He grew up with two of the men who hijacked the planes that day - as a child he sat next to them in lessons at school.

Image caption In Transit – Fighter

So why does he think the hijackers ended up following such a different path to him?

"The main problem is you cannot think independently and you cannot find the source of knowledge, so that's why you just wait for some orders and some kind of ideology and they just put it in your head," he says.

Col Gharem is trying to use his art to prompt change but he is clear that "it will not come through me, it will come through society… I am not pushing it".

Image caption Concrete Block, inscribed with the words "Don't trust the concrete," is about mental barriers

He admits he sometimes feels there are some, more conservative elements in Saudi society, who do not like his approach.

But, he says: "I try to produce the thing in a way that will make it beautiful, even though the message is a little bit hard. When they see the piece they will be in love with it and see I respect everybody".

Col Gharem's messages are often hidden - for one thing that makes it easier to export his art and limit questions from officials at customs.

He is showing his work at the Edge of Arabia gallery in London at the moment, and to make life easier he painted in some of the words after the art arrived in the UK.

Image caption Detail from Camouflage

It may seem at odds for a soldier, whose career is very much aligned with the establishment, to think of change in this way. But although the army took some time to understand Col Gharem and his art, he says his superiors are very supportive.

In fact he seems to see his two careers dovetailing well, and takes a long term perspective. Like many other Saudis, Col Gharem is reluctant to explicitly criticise the society he lives in.

But he is optimistic that his work will inspire more independent thought. "My main mission is to protect my people and to let them think and it's working… the change should come from them," he says.

All photographs courtesy of Abdulnasser Gharem and Edge of Arabia. Gharem will be at Edge of Arabia until 8 November.

Abdulnasser Gharem spoke to Newsday on the BBC World Service.