Six months after Ajlan Gharem’s Paradise Has Many Gates was unveiled in Vancouver’s beachfront Vanier Park, the little mosque made of chain link and steel pipe began to feel like part of the scenery. In many ways, this installation commissioned by the Vancouver Biennale acts as a device to reveal landscape, framing views of sky, water, and mountains that revel in Canadian nature.
While Paradise is relatively rooted in Vancouver (it will be on view through spring 2020), it had a mirage-like first iteration in the Saudi Arabian desert in 2015, when it was dismantled within 24 hours due to concerns about a backlash from fundamentalist clerics. Luckily, Gharem was able to produce a documentary video of the work, complete with a cast of local and foreign workers, that hinted at tensions between the rural and the urban, the foreign and the domestic, as well as larger issues of religious and state authoritarianism. In the social media-saturated kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where 70 percent of the population is under 30, Twitter proved an invaluable ally for Gharem. “At first Sheikh Muhammad al-Munajjid (the hard-line cleric who called for a fatwa against Mickey Mouse in 2008) condemned my work online,” the 33-year-old artist said. But when Saudi Twitter users explained the conceptual aspects of the work, the sheikh withdrew his comments.
The project’s Vancouver incarnation, Gharem says, is intended as a “community hub,” incorporating input from locals, weaving by First Nations artisans (its site is a former Indian reservation), and mandalas by a local Muslim Indo-Canadian artist, Sheniz Janmohamed. The installation was inspired by and indeed suggests the metal cages found in Guantánamo, refugee camps, and Trumpian prisons for migrant children, but it also examines how community is experienced in public spaces. In a city where social isolation, rising real-estate costs, and multiculturalism often intersect in tricky ways, Paradise Has Many Gates succeeds as an instrument for community interaction. Local First Nations artists who chanted welcome songs at the opening—each one taking a turn standing at the mihrab (the prayer niche closest to Mecca)—later displayed some of their weavings on the grass where bright-red Saudi carpets were initially spread. On any given day, the interior and exterior of the piece are given new meaning and dimension by the random passersby who fill its spaces and explore its edges. Playing with solidity and transparency, the authoritarian and the ephemeral, the work has become a meta-installation, transcending its original intent as diplomatic rows between the West and Saudi Arabia cast its ideals in sharp relief.
Ajlan is the younger brother of Abdulnasser Gharem, an internationally known artist who served as his mentor in the absence of art schools. Together they run the innovative, Riyadh-based Studio Gharem. In light of current political tensions, the voices of young Saudi artists are urgently needed, and yet they are the most vulnerable to backlash and censorship. “In the Quran, it is said that there are eight gates to paradise,” Gharem says. His aim is to initiate a discussion about how “in our respective societies, we all can find the gates that will lead us to paradise.”
In contrast to the exquisitely drawn chandeliers that illuminate the center of Gharem’s mosque, the harsh materiality of the chain-link exterior underscores material and conceptual tensions. During the day, the mosque/cage offers framed views of the surrounding Pacific vista. At night, it becomes a jewel-like steel lantern, channeling fragility and gravitas.
On a winter’s day, a beaver hurriedly made its way past Gharem’s work en route to a nearby pond. But all is not pastoral in Canada. A nearby sign reads “RESPECT THE ARTWORK. CLIMBING PROHIBITED. Video surveillance.” Someone had scratched out the word “ART” with a black marker and written “Religious” in its place. One is reminded that even as Vancouver’s international art world allure is growing, Canada, too, can suffer from conservatism and xenophobia. After all, it was only a decade ago that, when the Vancouver Biennale presented Dennis Oppenheim’s Device to Root Out Evil—a 25-foot, upside-down, New England-style church with its steeple thrust into the ground—it was driven out of town by “concerned” residents who complained it blocked their view. The Vancouver Parks Board was also inundated with complaints voicing offended Christian sensibilities.
The cage/mosque form also references the prison of identity, and in addition to combatting both Islamophobia and extremism, Gharem hopes his work will continue to be a gathering place for disparate communities. With a schedule of events planned to include local South Asian, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern Muslim as well as indigenous groups, the chain-link mosque on the Pacific has become a hopeful beacon amid a sea of strife.