AMSTERDAM: It all started with a yellow cow and a leap of faith.
In 2008, Aarnout Helb, a young Dutch lawyer who studied at Leiden University, was reading the Holy Quran while trying to piece together a larger global narrative from a legal and artistic perspective.
Going through the various passages of the holy book, he came across the story of the yellow cow from Surat Al-Baqarah.
It triggered something in him. After a quick internet search, an artwork by a Saudi artist came up – about that same yellow cow mentioned in the Quran. He couldn’t believe his luck. He immediately sent a message to the artist.
The artist replied. And so Helb accidentally started his long relationship with Saudi artists which led him to establish the Greenbox Museum of Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Holland.
The artist who made the piece Yellow Cow was none other than the world renowned Saudi artist Dr. Ahmed Mater who has since become his friend. Today, Mater’s book — with the yellow cow on the cover — sits proudly on the main table upon entering the museum space. Parts of the yellow cow project were acquired by Helb – and more.
Helb is an unlikely link to the Saudi art scene. Today, at 58, he’s a bit of an introvert, working mostly alone around his space, which he likes to call his “cabinet of curiosities.”
He began to replenish the collection according to what captured his imagination and fascinated his sensibility.
After the constant misrepresentation in the news following the tragic events of 9/11, where several of the hijackers were born in Saudi Arabia, Helb kept this fascination hidden until 2008, when he began to really see a change in the world.
He refers to that time as a global “mental prison”, where Islam and the West apparently couldn’t cooperate and he wanted to try to get to the bottom of it.
“I started it in a very complex way – it’s always hard to explain, but it was very influenced by 9/11. And the period after, because I didn’t start right away I started in 2008, which is much, much later, but the world was in a kind of mental prison after that.
“You know these ideas that Islam and the West – or whatever you call it – can’t work together. And in my opinion, it made no sense for the Netherlands within the NATO structure as friends of the United States to try to reorganize Afghanistan according to our vision of how a country should work,” he told Arab News.
“My knowledge of Saudi Arabia before this museum was very influenced by the fact that I have Indonesian roots, and Indonesia is one of the largest Islamic countries in terms of population. And there has always been a very strong relationship between Holland and its Indonesian colonization context – especially the Hijaz region because of Mecca and Medina – so we were involved both to make money and take care of the pilgrims,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia is culturally extremely important to the world – not because you have oil in Dhahran, not because in Riyadh you have a beautiful royal family; it’s important because people from all over the world go to Mecca and in Medina,” Helb said.
His first visit to Saudi Arabia was in 2013 after many years of surrounding himself with the art of the Kingdom.
The reason the trip was delayed was because he was, and is, determined to remain independent. Each piece in the collection has been curated with care and thought by him and has not been influenced by anyone else.
It is difficult to estimate how many pieces he has in the collection, as some are part of a series, but he estimates he has over 100 works.
“Although the museum started in the center of Amsterdam, at one point the space was not big enough for me. It was a rented space and I was looking to buy something within my budget, and it’s a small warehouse, where the collection – which is not my private collection, I fund it privately – but it’s is a public space to visit.
“He has statutes on what he has to do. And the art, although it’s mine, is purchased with status in mind. And it is used by the foundation for public viewing and research. I take it seriously.
According to Helb, three types of visitors typically came through the doors.
“Dutch visitors come because I am here; international visitors who somehow find me and are generally interested in the Middle East — they don’t come completely unannounced — which happened more when I was still at the center because it was easy to come; and the Saudis who visit… the ones I find most interesting because I learn more about the art,” he said.
He has visited the kingdom several times since but his home base is in Holland.
Last year, Helb moved his museum to a remote location in Hoofddorp, where he took his time unpacking each piece and putting it in its new place – which he realized was a blessing.
Helb is still deciding the exact shade he wants to paint the museum and isn’t sure if he wants to replicate the shade of the old wall, deliberating on the exact green shade that could grace the walls of the new Greenbox.
Ironically, and perhaps rightly so, the green color of the museum’s name was not chosen as a patriotic nod to the Saudi flag, but rather because of a personal connection to Helb, who admired in his a painting with a green tone that relaxed him.
The new location has attracted a host of unexpected visitors: taxi drivers from North Africa, many of whom reside on the outskirts of Amsterdam because it’s more affordable.
These Dutch nationals who are very proud of their Arab or Muslim roots do not usually ride bikes or use local public transport, so they come with their cars, park and walk around.
The space is just a 15-minute drive from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which is a five-hour flight from the nearest Saudi city.
To schedule a visit or to learn more about the Saudi artists featured in the museum, contact Helb via www.greenboxmuseum.com or on Instagram (@greenbox_museum).