His fascination with contemporary art from Saudi Arabia started with his search for the reason why a non-muslim may not enter Mecca. Add to that his questionable attitude towards so-called white cube museums, and what you get is 70 square meters of a room painted green in central Amsterdam, filled with Saudi modern art. I spoke with the inspired man, Aarnout Helb, manager of Greenbox Museum.
The first museum for contemporary art from Saudi Arabia isn’t to be found in Riyadh, but in a side street off the Leidseplein square in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Curiosity about those works of art, and what brings a Dutchman to occupy himself with modern Saudi art took me and Khadija, our photographer, to a warehouse on the fifth floor with a view of the Melkweg, the famous pop venue. Aarnout Helb didn’t tune his antenna to New York or London, but to Saudi Arabia, as, according to him, that’s were things are going on that are important on all fronts, and for us too. “My family has strong Indonesian roots. So we used to have strong ties with Saudi Arabia, because of the many pilgrims that went there. It was the time when we were involved with Indonesia. After the colonial period those ties were broken. But in the meantime we have a lot of immigrants from Turkey and Morocco here who have those same ties with Saudi Arabia, through the hajj.” Helb wondered why Mecca plays a role in the cultural perception all over the Muslim world. “I am not interested in Arabic, but in the fact Saudi Arabia defines itself as the ‘story of the holy mosque’. That the country has a special position. That it will keep. And that is just as relevant to Arabs as it is to the Dutch, Somalians and Indonesians.
Helb explained how the book written by professor Snouck Hurgronje, the Dutch expert on Islam, led him to start the museum. In his capacity as advisor to the Dutch colonial government he once suggested to take out the sting from the European relation with Muslims not by way of soldiers and weapons, but by way of a good conversation in the city where so many pilgrims come together every year. He converted to Islam and was thus able to enter Mecca. This event triggered Helb, a lawyer by training, to wonder why he, as a non-muslim, couldn’t enter Mecca. Nobody could supply him with a real answer. So he started out on his search by reading the Quran, where he found a chapter on a yellow cow. “I was working as a curator, when I came across the story of a yellow cow that is a pleasure to the eye. That is a positive emotion, and related to the visual arts, of which an important element is the pleasure of watching.” And when googling for this yellow cow, he stumbled up the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater. That was in 2008. “I forgot all about my legal question because I could now virtually visit Mecca, and that by collecting visual art works. I could study poetry too, but then again, I don’t read Arabic.” At the same time he wanted to share this with the wider public. And with the 18th century panopticon, the collection of curiosities, on his mind, the archetypical museum, Greenbox Museum was born.
With his questionable attitude towards the white cube museum concept Aarnout Helb collected the art works in the smallest museum in Amsterdam. “I didn’t want to become a white cube museum, like all those western museums, like those very specific galeries of Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst, who are only interested in art that fetches the highest prices on the market.” Helb doesn’t want to present an exhibition, but to create a space that shows a permanent interest for contemporary art from Saudi Arabia.
No white wall, but green ones. One would logically surmise that is a reference to the colour of Islam or the national flag of Saudi Arabia, but that wasn’t the reason. “In my house I have a small painting by Jan van Heyse hanging in a corner. A green landscape with a blue sky, hanging next to a lamp with a green shade. For me personally an agreeable corner. It gives me peace, therefore I chose that colour green for the museum. When I was working on it, the green paint was already on the walls, an artist told me it does indeed correspond to Islam. The colour of nature, soothing, of an oasis, the essence is the same.”
Helb prefers to collect conceptual art. To him, that is like an alchemistic process. The museum shows fine specimens of contemporary artists who don’t necessarily want to provoke, but want to reflect the current spirit of Saudi Arabia. According to Helb, a more intelligent form of art. We see works by among others Abdulnasser Gharem, Ayman Yossri, Maha Malluh, Jowhara Al-Saud, Reem Al-Faisal and Lulwah Al-Homoud. The themes of their works admittedly often hint at politics and philosophy, with a deep content, but also with a humorous wink.
Greenbox Museum isn’t subsidised (yet). Not from Saudi Arabia either. There is a lot of willingness to do so, but Helb dreads interference and uses his own funds. He already once witnessed a work of art from Saudi Arabia being censored because it might be perceived as criticism of the religion. But a liberal Saudi newspaper did publish a picture of the work and it has been on display in Greenbox Museum for some time now. “They are in a learning process, it is because of the efforts of the artist, and because people are speaking about it that room and understanding for art is developing. I do understand the reaction. One hasn’t been raised with the visual arts, and one wants to spread a positive image of one’s country; for them, that is not self-evident.”
Greenbox Museum is open from Wednesday through Friday from 13.00 to 17.00 hours. Admittance is €5 per person, groups of 8 or more persons, with a maximum of 15, pay €40. The museum can also be visited on appointment on other days or hours, including evenings. For an appointment contact Mr. Helb by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The museum is located at the Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 12 (next to the Leidseplein).
Photos: © Khadija Ed-Dahbi
Translation: Mark Eijkman
This post is also available in: Dutch