Latest Gonzo project takes over Boogie’s upstairs

Aspen is the next stop for a tour of Saudi Arabian artists hungry to interact with the world and break down cultural stereotypes.

The Gonzo Arabia show opens Thursday in the upstairs space at the Boogie’s building formerly home to the diner at 534 E. Cooper Ave. and runs through Sept. 1. The show features 11 Saudi artists whose work is on display in numerous U.S. cities — their first stop was Houston’s Station Museum of Contemporary Art — in a collaboration between the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture and the Gharem Studio in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

The Gonzo Gallery of Aspen, London-based Culturunners and the Open Mind Project are producing the show locally.

Stephen Stapleton, founder of Culturunners who said he lobbied Gonzo Gallery founder DJ Watkins to find a home for the show in Aspen, said the project fits well into Aspen’s historic “freak power” narrative. Stapleton said he was taken in by the tale of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 run for Pitkin County sheriff and his collaboration with artist Tom Benton. The contemporary works from the heart of the Muslim world speak to the intersection of art and activism that animates Aspen’s history, he said.

Much of the work — which include photos, installations and calligraphy — was incubated at the Gharem Studio.

Ajlan Gharem, whose brother started the studio, described it as a place for creative types working in numerous fields to come together. In Riyadh, creative outlets can be hard to come by, as there are few galleries, museums or places to “sit with others who understand you,” he said. Artists created the Gharem studio to fill that void.

Among the works is a photo of a bridge where, during a flood in 1982, a village elder directed his people to take shelter. Gharem explained how following that advice turned out to be a bad idea, because floodwaters overtook the bridge and many lost their lives. In the photo, the surface of the bridge is painted over with Arabic script repeating over and over again the word “path” — a significant term for Muslims, who pray for Allah to “guide us to the path” of a righteous life, he said.

The underlying message of the piece, Gharem said, is to be an individual and not a follower.

Shaweesh, another artist featured in the show, takes historic news photographs and alters them. In one piece, he photoshopped Captain America into an image of refugees fleeing Palestine in 1948. The headline, written in Arabic, says, “U.S. government urged to take a stand on refugees.”

Another artist, Nugamshi, specializes in calligraphy, but says he aims to break the conventions surrounding the writing of Arabic script. In Houston, he painted a mural on the wall of the gallery using crude oil. He plans a similar live demonstration in Aspen, although it may have to go down without the oil.

The artists and curators involved in the show will give salon-style talks on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Watkins said. Stapleton added that the first questions many want to ask have to do with controversial political topics, but the art presented goes deeper than that in a way that is subtle and more real, he said.

Shaweesh and Gharem said they don’t seek to shock or offend with art, but instead want to bring people with them to a place of creativity and critical thinking. Shaweesh said he feels that he can get farther working within the system.

It can be a delicate balance. The traveling show’s patron, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, is funded by the giant oil company Saudi Aramco, and the center’s headquarters is a contemporary building constructed on the site of the kingdom’s first commercial oil well. One of the marquee pieces of the Houston show is an installation featuring the U.S. Capitol dome propped open with a black surface representing an oil slick underneath.