Saudi artists on show in UAE gallery exhibition 

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DUBAI: Emerging Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim is an open book. Just over ten minutes into our interview, Almulhim, speaking from his studio in Riyadh, admits he struggles with mental health issues, particularly depression. He copes, he says, by breathing deeply, praying, walking barefoot on the grass and engaging with his spiritual side. The subject came up when I asked him about his childhood in Saudi Arabia, at a time when the country was much more restrictive.

“I never asked myself this question because I was always afraid of looking back at memories. It was not an easy lifestyle, neither for men nor for women,” Almulhim, who was born in 1988, told Arab News.

“Balance” by Nasser Almulhim. (Supplied)

Almulhim comes from a large family with four sisters and three brothers. They grew up in the Al-Malaz district of Riyadh, which, according to the artist, is largely inhabited by an expat community of Sudanese, Egyptians and Jordanians. Interaction with people of different backgrounds enriched his upbringing.

“My parents raised me well and taught me from a young age to respect people,” he says. “It was a very simple lifestyle. We didn’t have much, but my family provided us with security and a good education. I went to a public school and we were on the streets a lot. We played football and we sprayed paint, we were just rebellious, and the police came,” he says. “Art was dead then. It was haram.”

Nevertheless, Almulhim, who enjoyed math and science at school, always drew. “My parents saw something in me,” he says. It’s also possible that Almulhim, who describes himself as a visual, nature-loving person, inherited his artistic sensibility from his family. Almulhim says his grandmother was a poet and his father was passionate about analogue photography.

“Distance is Near” by the artist. (Supplied)

“I think he has an artistic streak, but he doesn’t live it out,” he says. “He has a beautiful vision, even with the way he decorated the house. It came from someone who was vulnerable and sensitive.”

While in school, Almulhim noticed how “different” he was as a Saudi compared to other Arabs in the region. “We often traveled to Syria and Lebanon,” he recalls. “In Beirut, everyone was hanging out on the beach. People were doing their own thing, and then when I came back to Riyadh, it was the complete opposite. I asked my father, ‘Are we outsiders?’ And he said, ‘There is a system. This is our tradition and culture.’ So I always tried to do the opposite.”

After graduating from high school, Almulhim, who didn’t speak English at the time, traveled all the way to Sydney, Australia, to take intensive English courses. He later moved to the US to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “The funny thing is, I went there to study engineering,” he says, adding that the men in his family were doctors or engineers. At university, he hung out with creative people studying music and theatre, and they noticed something about him.

“Face your own madness.” (Delivered)

“They saw me reading books, drawing, playing guitar, watching art documentaries and going to museums. They advised me to change my major. It was a big deal for me and for my family too. I switched to fine arts and it was the best decision I ever made. I felt light, I was like myself,” says Almulhim, who graduated from the University of West Florida with a degree in studio art.

As his colorful paintings show, Almulhim is not afraid to show his feminine side, which stems from his close relationship with his sisters.

“I always felt comfortable talking to them, even about sensitive topics that I couldn’t talk about with my parents. There was a gap,” he says. But male viewers received criticism. “For example, because of the use of pink, men asked me: ‘Why are you using pink? You’re a man.'”

He says he wants to go “back to basics” with his painting by re-appreciating beauty.

“In art, beauty is my biggest inspiration. The late Lebanese artist Etel Adnan said that in today’s art scene, we have neglected the idea of ​​beauty and only focus on the conceptual,” he says. “People like distraction, which makes sense because we live in distraction. But I feel that beauty is necessary for the soul, the physical self and for being nice to other people.”

Wet “View of the Sea Horizon.” (Supplied)

Almulhim fills his calming canvases, which consist of floating geometric shapes, with open areas of color.

“When I paint, I like colors that make me happy and heal. They put you in a state of mind that doesn’t numb you, but disconnects you from the distractions around you. I always say that art is therapy for me. Part of it is that I feel like I’m maybe running away from a pain that I need to be healed from, and part of it is facing that pain,” he explains, adding that he hopes to one day earn a doctorate in art therapy. His paintings also contain a psychological and spiritual element, creating his own universe in which he “channels the Higher Power, Allah, this great universe, this divinity that is outside and within us.”

On June 6, Almulhim will open his new exhibition “On In-Between” at Tabari Art Space in Dubai. In his new paintings, the artist explores the psychological stages of the subconscious, preconscious and conscious.

“I tell the audience that we need to understand this world in order to heal and to know ourselves,” he says. “Also, it’s OK to move between those two or three fields. I tell you as a humble person that I am all of those things: my chaos, my order, my vulnerability, my beauty, my ugliness. I lay all of that out there.”

Almulhim is also motivated at this stage of his career by collaborating with fellow artists in the Arab region. He wants to organize an artist residency exchange where artists from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan can work in his studio in Riyadh and vice versa. He says the ongoing tragedy in Gaza gave him the idea.

“I am an artist, but above all I am a human being,” he says. “How can I help? How can I contribute? How can we learn from each other as Arabs and as citizens of the world? I believe that we need this unity in our region.”

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