Thinking Outside the Box
AMSTERDAM – HOME TO THE WORLD’S FIRST MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY SAUDI ART
Amsterdam – a city renowned for its winding canals, bohemian charm, expressionist painters, and more recently, the world’s first museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary art from Saudi Arabia. You’d think, naturally, that such a museum would have its home in Saudi Arabia, or at least elsewhere in the Middle East; but for now, you’ll have to visit the fifth floor of an unassuming building in the heart of the land of the Franj. Despite its modest demeanor and limited size, however, owner and Saudi art collector Aarnout Helb – who is neither from Saudi Arabia nor has even visited the kingdom – has managed to draw in visitors from around the world, and build quite a reputation for himself as well as for contemporary Saudi Arabian art.
According to Helb, the idea for the Greenbox Museum came about as he was downloading pictures of Mecca online. Helb had previously attended an exhibition of postcards from Mecca which inspired him to visit the city, although the only way he could do this was via photographs, with Mecca being barred to all but the faithful. As well, Helb as a child had become fascinated with Arab culture and Islam through discovering the heirlooms and memorabilia of his Dutch grandfather, who converted to the faith upon marrying Helb’s Javanese grandmother. As he was preparing to curate an exhibition of contemporary art at the time, he could think of no better theme than contemporary Saudi art, and he’s never looked back since.
It opens people’s eyes. I think nobody walks out of the museum indifferent
Though he received much support from leading Saudi artists such as Lulwah Al-Homoud and Reem Faisal, and his idea was received with much interest, Helb never intended to put Saudi art on a pedestal, or promote any agendas. Rather, he wished to create a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, where ideas could be shared, exchanged, and discussed. As well, in establishing Greenbox, Helb endeavored to provide Western audiences with a positive reflection of Saudi art & culture, in contrast to the negative images and depictions often seen in the media.
Staying true to its name, the Greenbox Museum is green in every sense of the word. For one, Helb decided to have the walls of the museum painted green in stark contrast to the ‘white cube’ atmosphere favored by galleries everywhere. Furthermore, he employs the word ‘green’ in reference to the national color of Saudi Arabia, as well as the color of Islam. In the case of the latter, this has in part helped Helb attract a much wider array of fans. Though the museum is situated in Amsterdam, the majority of its advocates and visitors are from the vast Muslim world, in countries in East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and the Maghreb, giving Greenbox what Helb refers to as a ‘transcendental’ quality, and the ability to unite fans.
For now, the Greenbox has ‘no predictions, no prognosis, and no business model’, in Helb’s words, and intends to remain the small cabinet of curiosities that it is. The Greenbox Museum currently features the works of six Saudi artists, and Helb only has plans to collect two works each year. However, while the Greenbox may not be growing in size, the same cannot be said for its ever-expanding fan base (its Facebook page boasts over 850,000 ‘likes’), and its impact on audiences. As Helb notes with respect to those who have had the pleasure of visiting the Greenbox, ‘…they all meet the unexpected. It opens people’s eyes. I think nobody walks out of the museum indifferent’. Having visited many galleries and museums – few of which I can even remember – that’s no small feat whatsoever.
Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the Founder and Editor of REORIENT, as well as the Co-Founder of artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art. He is also the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam's poems from Persian into English.
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