A few steps away from the Van Gogh Museum, hidden in the heart of Amsterdam, is an unconventional museum with beautiful art from the Middle East. The Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art is a platform for contemporary Saudi Arabian art; it is dedicated and exclusive to various artists from the Kingdom which include the works of prominent contemporary artists such as AbdulNasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater.
The founder of the creative space, Aarnout Helb, is not a Saudi nor a Muslim, but a Dutchman with Indonesian roots. He’s never been to Saudi Arabia for that matter. He says in previous interviews, “In the Quran, I read that Mecca is a guide for all human beings. For the moment, that includes me, and nobody should object.” The museum works on a small private budget and really is a cabinet of curiosities with a modest goal of turning the attention to Mecca, especially to non-Muslims who usually have a hard time entering the Holy City.
While the place is tiny (we’re talking about 72 square meters), we can count today over a million likes on their Facebook page, making it the second largest museum in the digital sphere. Artworks include all sorts of mediums: performance, video, x-rays, silkscreens prints, and more. The choice of pieces relies mostly on their conceptual side and the ideas they project rather than the aesthetics.
We contacted the museum’s owner in order to get further explanations on this intriguing little art showing…
Why did you decide to have the museum focus on Mecca specifically and not the Middle East as a whole?
It’s because you can wake up young people in Indonesia, Algeria or the Netherlands in the middle of the night and ask them about Mecca and they will smile and say it’s where their grandparents went on Hajj last year. In a cultural sense Mecca is for many people a center of their universe, and increasingly, so this matters to the world. The ‘Middle East’ is a definition that never caught up with me. Why would a region define itself as halfway the front door of its neighbour from afar?
In a world where religion is a sensitive topic, did you ever have issues with the art you showcase?
Yes, many issues. Art would not be interesting if there were no issues. But we have a very straightforward policy in these matters. We trust artists from Saudi Arabia to be competent to deal with them. In 2008, I trusted Abdulnasser Gharem when many of his works got into trouble at Edge of Arabia in London and now he is a much respected artist increasingly understood by people who at first were insecure about how to react to his work.
We read online that you were not able to go to Mecca, so you brought Mecca to you. Today, do you ever consider visiting the Kingdom?
‘The Kingdom’ for me is that of the house of Orange, but naturally at some point I should visit that of the house of Saud. I am only afraid they may mistake me for a western consultant or salesman who wishes to advise them how to improve their lives and I am quite sure they do not need me for that.
The museum is open from Wednesday to Friday from 1:00 till 5:00PM. The admission fee is € 5 p.p. and groups of 8+ (maximum 15) pay a fixed fee of € 40. The museum can be visited by appointment on other days and hours, which includes the evening.
For more information about the museum, visit www.greenboxmuseum.com
– Yasmine Mehdi