Lebanese artist, socio-political commentator, observer of culture and pop-culture analyst. Ali A. Cha’aban is all of these things.
Ali believes that art is the match that will ignite social and political change, and so he creates works of art that spotlight world issues and trigger deep feelings of nostalgia for a time that perhaps never was.
After collaborating with Nike to create limited edition pairs, such as the ‘satellite culture’ collection, and the upcoming ‘dusk to dawn’ collection, he was labelled by the famous multi-national corporation as a ‘visionary artist’ and his work is continuing to touch and inspire thousands of people.
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us how you started in the arts? and your first experience in art making?
My name is Ali Cha’aban. I am a Lebanese artist, born and raised in Kuwait, but as well as an artist, people often refer to me as an observer of culture, or a pop-culture analyst, because of the way I reflect different cultures in my work.
I started out as a pop artist in 2008, showcasing my work which was a mixture of graffiti and collage work in a construction site in Kuwait. What I loved most was the reception of my work, the way people reacted and responded to it. The feedback and the narrative is what’s so important, and this comes from people’s thoughts and critiques, and what resonates with them after they’ve left.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I didn’t always want to become an artist, in fact my first years in college were focused on studying pre-med. But I gradually became more detached from that notion, and more motivated by the need to comment on social and political events, like the 2006 war in Lebanon, through visual representations. After a while though, the need comment on these events evolved into a desire to become a storyteller of sort.
As an artist I like to create ‘space’ where ideas and notions can be exchanged. The ‘space’ provides an opportunity to create discussions that transcend interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral boundaries. As artists we are culture, we are the citizens of the world.
How would you describe yourself and your artwork?
Art is hardly ever defined, it’s subjective: it means something different to each artist. To me, art is the perfect way to create a social commentary and highlight social and political issues, shedding light on different subjects. It’s how artists can communicate and address concerns and generate awareness.
There is a strong current of nostalgia running through my work, in fact nostalgia is a notion that my work revolves around. I tackle socio-political issues such as the Arabian identity and the state of dystopia, but the significance of the present nostalgia is still vague. I constantly ask myself whether it reflects a longing for the innocence of childhood, and the simplicity of the pre-digital age, or whether it’s a form of escapism from the current socio-political problems. I try to find the answers to these questions through my creations.
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
My mediums vary from concept to concept, depending on the subject I want to tackle. I always research which medium will be best suited to a concept.
I am a contemporary artist, but I also consider my work to be in line with the school of Marcel Duchamp, an art that serves the mind, rather than the eyes. Once we depart with the ideals that art should be aesthetically pleasing, we find ourselves in a place where we can appreciate that the idea, concept or message is more important.
Different artists have different opinions on art and its purpose, but I for one believe that the message behind the art is always more important than the appearance.
Do you use a sketchbook?
No, haha, never. I’m an industrial/installation artist, so I’m more technological in planning my work.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I first started out as an artist, I produced work that was visually pleasing with the purpose of being relevant or unleashing an energy. But as I progressed, the meaning of art changed to me, it became a way to raise social awareness, and so my work is now more focused on tackling socio-political issues, and presenting issues to the masses in hope of sparking a reaction from my audience. That reaction is where change occurs, in the form of activism.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
An art piece to an artist is like a child to his mother: she can never favor one over the other. Each art piece depicts or decodes an emotion from a certain point of an artists’ life.
If I had to choose though, it would be between “سيمر كل مر “This Too Shall Pass,” and “The Broken Dream.
“سيمر كل مر “This Too Shall Pass,” touches on the topic of refugees. The series depicts emotional stages that a person who is displaced endures: Anger, Resolution and then Hope. This piece is the second emotion, resolution. The piece is significant because it reminds us that there’s no obstacle we can’t overcome, it reminds that we have to become one with our obstacles, and accept them as part of our journey.
“The Broken Dream tackles the issue of the neglected identity many of us seem to undergo. This was a particularly relatable piece for many, as many of my generation were able to relate to the struggle of late-found Arabism in a person’s life.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Most of my inspiration stems from my major in Anthropology. I studied and observed all sorts of cultures, and as an artist, I became like a sponge, absorbing all these ideas and memories.
Studying anthropology has helped me to reflect on the message I try to convey in my work, I don’t just convey emotions and issues, I understand them. Anthropology allows me to create pieces that trigger emotional attachment or resentment in my viewers, because I understand their way of thinking.
What are your artistic influences?
There are three people that influenced me the most: Mounir Fatmi, a contemporary artist; Mahmoud Darwish, the nostalgic poet; and Khalid Zahid, who is not only a fellow contemporary artist, but also my best friend.
They all have a particular style which has influenced and inspired me, and that influence has flown into my art. Fatmi’s eye for detail, Darwish’s words that give you goosebumps, and Zahid’s sporadic technique all resonate with me, and have influenced my work.
How does your geographical and cultural surroundings impact your artistic process?
To say that the Arab identity as a whole is shattered would be an exaggeration, but that emotion started growing within me around the start of the Arab Spring. Seeing insurgencies and civil wars occur made me feel nostalgic towards a peace that never materialized.
Whether for religious or ideological reasons, I believe that unity between the masses doesn’t exist, or at least it’s slowly fading. However, I do believe that there is an external influence on our identity that derives from the west.
This is an idea which I discussed in my series “The Broken Dream”, as I tried to familiarize myself with both sides of my upbringing. The Persian rug has its own prominence from visual to felt, and experiment with mixing the pop culture with the traditional aesthetics and material of a Persian rug felt like a broken dream.
What emotions do you hope the viewers experience when looking at your art?
Hiraeth, a word that means ‘nostalgia’, is what my work revolves around, and what I hope viewers feel and experience when looking at my art. My work provokes a homesickness for a home which you cannot return to, or maybe even a home which never existed. Nostalgia, yearning, and grief for the lost places of the past is what viewers experience.
This is why in my series “The Broken Dream” I depict Superman with bruises, and Wonder Woman fallen down. The significance of both superheroes being in distress relies on the emotion of nostalgia.
Is there anywhere in the world that inspires you most of all?
The Arabian Peninsula as a whole is very inspiring. It’s richness in culture and diversity makes it a melting pot where different cultures come together, and this unity is inspiring not just to me, but to many people.
There’s so much to take in that the Peninsula is like a content generator. There’s infusion of past and present, heritage and modernity, all presented on a silver platter. In the Arab world, national, sectarian and religious identities seem to be both antagonistic and complimentary concepts.
What has been the most exciting moment in your art career so far?
The past two years have held many incredible experiences, with a roller-coaster of emotions and many fruitful events and projects. To name just a few, there was the Art Abu Dhabi in collaboration with The Louvre launch, the “Satellite Culture” global Nike campaign which I produced, my talk with Apple about culture and light, and the Shara art fair last Ramadan where “The Broken Dream” artwork stole the spotlight.
Tell us about some of your achievements you are most proud of?
One of the biggest moments in my careers was when I was acknowledged by the educational sector. My “Halal/Haram” artwork was purchased for the Noura Al Kaabi, who is the Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development for the Untied Arab Emirates. This was a very big deal for me.
What exciting projects are you working on right now? Can you share some of the future plans for your artworks?
I’m working with a fellow Saudi Arabian artist, Khalid Zahid, to create an installation series that explores the concept of metaphysics, a branch of philosophy that explores abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space, and how it’s relevant in modern-day Islam.
Another exciting project is my Nike collaboration. I’m currently working with Nike to create 30 pairs of shoes to be released in Ramadan, exclusively via the Nike app.
Do you have any upcoming events or exhibitions we should know about?
Being signed to a gallery fills up your calendar with upcoming exhibitions, but mostly I am focusing on the Shara Art Fair in Jeddah, where I’ll be showcasing my new metaphysics collaboration with Khalid Zahid.
Later on this year, I’ll be focusing on the Art Abu Dhabi solo show, where I’ll expand the series.
Do you feel that it’s important to convey your own beliefs and opinions within your art? And should your work therefore be viewed as autobiographical?
Art functions as a haven for ideas. Art is propaganda, art is a voice and a way to seek and inspire change. It’s a form of communication that goes beyond normal discourse. It has the ability to move and drive a notion from what is said, to what is felt.
Many artists, including myself, use art to voice their opinion on the problems of the world, and the world is very problematic. So yes, I believe that it’s important to convey my own beliefs and opinions of the world within my work, as I believe art decodes history and attitudes of a certain time.
Now that we’re in an age of social media, artists can reach more people with their art, and share their opinions of world problems worldwide, inspiring people to take action. Conveying beliefs and opinions in art, and spreading that art is key to connecting the masses under one model of thought.