A Saudi military man doubles as a world-class artist

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is "The World". Coming back to where we started the show today - Saudi Arabia. We have a story about a guy who moonlights in a really unusual way. His name is Abdulnasser Gharem and he's a contemporary artist who shows his work in galleries all over the world, but he's also a Lieutenant Colonel in the Saudi Army. Gharem is forty and grew up in what was a small agricultural town, so when he started to do his artwork there he got some strange reactions, especially for a performance piece that he did where he wrapped himself and a tree in a giant sheet of plastic.

Abdulnasser Gharem: I'm coming from a tribe and the people there ,and it's a small village and everybody knows and the phone calls start between them, "What's this guy doing?". And then being in the army as well, it was a little bit complicated. And the people start to come, immediately they just come to to me, the whole city just , in the beginning, they thought I'm crazy, and then I start to tell them "Guys, there is an issue here."

Schachter: And that issue was an environmental one. Like much of his art work, the piece touched on problems that Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world are now facing. Gharem says that art can be a way to talk about things in a conservative country where it's not comfortable to speak about politics.

Gharem: You know, through the newspaper or the official channels you cannot say what you want sometimes. But through the art you have a kind of exit.

Schachter: But Gharem's art can be political. In 2008, he was exhibiting a piece in London that featured an image of one of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. It's an extremely sensitive issue for the Saudi government since most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens. So when some Saudi officials saw the exhibition in London, they asked him to withdraw the piece. Gharem refused, but he did agree to change it. He took out the imagery of the plane, though he didn't want to. Gharem now has a new show up in London through earlier November. In this interview with the BBC, he concedes that sometimes it's easier to show his artwork outside his home country.

Gharem: Yeah, I think it's kind of a strategy. You know, I learned from the army a lot. I know that I should do my career relying on the long term and just, my mission is to protect my people and to let them think and I figured it out. I know what's the main problem. The main problem is that people are not thinking, so I should encourage them to think.

Schachter: Gharem says he doesn't see any conflict between being an artist and a military man. In fact he says they compliment one another.