Artworks of Salman Al Najem

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Text by Latifa Al Khalifa

There are many characteristics that are inextricable to being Khaleeji, two in particular, are the shared language and religion. To clarify where we are now is to deconstruct one of the main pillars and practices of Khaleeji Identity; worship. This is what Salman Al Najem does in his latest series, ‘Mihrab’.

In the Mihrab series, Al Najem makes use of pictorial semiotics for the series which are an extension of his “EJTMA3YAT” works, where caricatures populate his paintings, personify his views on the absurdities of Khaleeji culture. Showcasing the works in this series for the first time during the holy month of Ramadan is a deliberate choice acting as a vignette into the Khaleejis’ relationship towards worship.

Behavioural attributes of worship cross-pollinate into other aspects of life for the Khaleeji, devotion towards wealth, nationalism and celebrity are prime examples. Al Najem exercises his artistic language with a calculated satirical wit derived from his apt observations of these idiosyncrasies and behaviours of Khaleeji society.

The Mihrab is an architectural structure that points towards the qibla: “a semi-circle concave of a wall that the Imam stands in front (in a mosque) to give his sermon and lead worshippers in prayer”. The paintings deconstruct this familiar symbol in the Islamic faith, pieced back together in a psychedelic version that is breathed into existence with luminescent colours sprayed on the canvas. Hovering within them like extraterrestrial beings are his familiar Khaleeji caricatures along with fictional ones. They all exist outside of traditional gender specifications, reclaiming a male-dominated sacred space.

In the Mihrab series, backgrounds are devoid of fine lines, and instead portray blurred facades that symbolise worship as a transcendent experience. “I believe God to be an energy. I believe God to be something that exists within us, that empowers us as opposed to something that has power over us”, Al Najem explains.

In these works, Al Najem challenges his audience to redefine their learned conceptions of the divine, by opening up to the altered states offered in his paintings. The backgrounds are mimetic and inspired by the revolving colours and shapes seen when one’s eyes are closed. “Your eyes play around and the focus point isn’t clear. This in its simplest form an experience that defies nature”, he says.

The shifting perspective offers the individual autonomy to define their behaviours through deliberate acts of cognitive reasoning. It is here that Al Najem’s audiences are really challenged. As Erick Fromm states, “It seems that nothing is more difficult for the average man to bear than the feeling of not being identified with a large group”. The works evoke a need to defy convention and to examine how Khaleeji societal norms are actually undefined.

Al Najem parodies the myopic view towards methods of religious practices, transposing it with a wide spectrum of individuals - ranging from a floating female deity to historical figures of multiple faith and mythological beings. The works in this series portray what the artist describes as “humans elevated to divine status”. And by shifting the focus from a role strictly afforded to men, the artist speculates in his work on a self-inflicted male gaze that the Khaleeji both enforces and is subject to.

“Living in this region, I would be foolish to not consider society, and its expectations. No matter how far I try to stray, I will be influenced by it. It is a force woven in the fabric of living and growing up here. Instead of trying to reject the inevitable, I study, contend, and play with it.” Al Najem explains.

We can see in Al Najem’s work, a satirical overview of ‘The Khaleeji Gaze’, or Gulf Gaze, an unconscious observance that is inherited by one’s environment rather than their personal experiences. It is the ubiquitous auto-pilot view the Khaleeji unquestionably engages. This gaze promotes a male-driven conservative outlook and ambitious machinations seeking to overturn mental colonisation - the ethnic and cultural inferiority experienced by those colonised.

The Gulf Gaze calls for religious piety, blind nationalism and appropriation of western capitalism. It is through this lens that the Khaleeji is evaluated and accepted into society. And it is this pertinacious gaze that Al Najem contests, where he shifts this outwards-facing view inwards by promoting a personal interaction with God that mirrors the spiritual practices of Islamic mysticism.

As Rumi said, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. The works in this series aim to simplify the religious experience to individual practices rather than collective societal obligations and conventions traditionally passed down, and are often not tied to religion at all.

The Mihrab series offers a complex introspection into the Khaleeji by defining and satirising their censored gaze. The works offer an experiential interaction that supersede attitudes towards religion, instead they offer the audience permission to reach outside of the proverbial box they’ve been placed in by orientalism and its complimenting neo-orientalism, Khaleeji society and those that are self-prescribed.

Al Najem utilises humour to highlight the ineffability of the divine with psychedelic colours that invite his audience to see themselves as conduits of a divine energy. The religiously symbolic and masculine architectural space of the Mihrab is repurposed to house figures that traditionally do not occupy that space. This disruption is by no means pejorative, it instead playfully incites the audience to bend the Khaleeji gaze in order to look inwards for answers and guidance. Al Najem observes, “As people, we are not as fragile as we think we are”.

Salman Al Najem’s profile and artist video

Writer’s bio:

Latifa Al Khalifa is a curator and writer investigating contemporary culture of the MENA region, with a focus on the Arabian Gulf. As a way to champion artists and creatives from the MENA region on a global scale, Al Khalifa launched Too Far, an arts consultancy in Bahrain in 2016. She is a regular contributor to Khaleejesque and Tribe Magazine and is an alumnus of the Bangkok edition of the ICI Curatorial Intensive (2018).

Photographs courtesy of Hady Elcott and Noor Althehli