Aarnout Helb’s permanent collection of work by Saudi Arabian artists brings a diverse mix of talent from a still largely closed country under one roof.
Shrouded in mystery, Saudi Arabia remains a source of fascination among many, known more for its rich oil reserves than its art.
But the Dutch collector Aarnout Helb is helping to change all that, by creating a one-of-a-kind, permanent collection of Saudi art in Amsterdam. Located near Leidseplein and with the ambience of an 18th-century Cabinet of Curiosities, the Greenbox Museum showcases an organic treasure trove of work by contemporary Saudi artists which Helb has amassed over the years. Aside from providing a valuable platform for Saudi talent, the permanent collection, which went on show in 2008, also offers a rare opportunity to learn a little more about this still-so-secretive country through the work of its artists.
Making a decision to focus on collecting art from Saudi Arabia exclusively might sound a little offbeat, but then, Helb, who originally studied law, likes to go against the grain sometimes. He explains, with a smile, that the name of his museum was, in part, a small-scale, personal rebellion at a time when Damien Hirst's Skull with Diamonds was being shown at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with much ado.
“White Cube is where this marriage of art and selling tickets came from then and I felt the walls needed a colour,” he says. “I have a lampshade and landscape painting in one corner of my house that are both green – and it is a corner of my house that I like. The colour also makes sense. Do we not admire flowers in fields and forests and not in the clouds?” Much later, a visiting Saudi photographer brought up the theme of the oasis in Islam and, more broadly, the importance of the colour green.
Helb explains that the reasons for his interest in Saudi Arabia’s art and, more broadly, the country, are complex. Firstly, he explains, he developed an awareness of Saudi Arabia’s holy cities and its key role in Islam through his family’s connections with Asia and heard about the pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca.
“Two of my grandparents and earlier generations lived in Asia,” he says. “I also became fascinated with the way Saudi Arabia tried to find some unity to address the huge challenges it faced after the 9/11 atrocities, which included a wave of xenophobia. It became clear to me that the country, in its own way, was striving for togetherness, even if its efforts sometimes fell short.”
Helb’s interest in the country’s art can be traced back to a day when he was relaxing at his summer house and reading the sura (chapter) of the Koran on the yellow cow. “I remember thinking that this description was very visual,” he notes. “I did some more research and discovered that the artist Ahmed Mater had created an installation on this theme, titled ‘Yellow Cow Products’, which was shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2007.”
Helb buys his art in person and also from galleries, selecting his pieces according to what catches his eye, “from beauty and content to the way the piece has been executed.”
His collection includes works by Abdulnassar Gharem, an artist from a small village near the Yemeni border who is also a lieutenant colonel in the Saudi military, and Mecca-born Nasser El Salem, a modern calligrapher who uses non-conventional mixed media forms and was shortlisted for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Jameel Prize 3.
Among his recent acquisitions is a piece by Sarah Khodja, titled Human Rights, which is a metal construction depicting barbed-wire fences put up by the United Nations. “I like this piece because it is a modern commentary on a topical issue, but it is also the view of a Saudi national and a Muslim,” Helb notes.
Faced with space constraints, Helb admits he faces “difficult decisions” about what to leave on display and what to place in storage. However, there is little to indicate that his buying days are over. “I like the element of discovery,” he says. “But the greatest feeling is seeing the eyes of an artist who wasn’t expecting to sell you something light up.”