Two GCC-based artists set out on a mission to uncover the Gulf’s burgeoning urban art scene. Here they tell us how they got on.
French artists Quentin de Pimodan (the writer) and Melchior de Tinguy (the photographer) have been best friends since they were kids and while they each grew up in Paris, they have strong connections to the GCC region. Melchior was born in Jidhafs, Bahrain, while Quentin’s family has been based in Kuwait for decades. It was their love of art and this knowledge of the Middle East that brought them together in a project now known as ‘The Khaleeji Voice,’ a six-part book series about each of the GCC nations (Qatar featuring prominently) and their respective urban art cultures. Intrigued, we had to find out more, and so met up with the pair of them.
When you were coming up with the content for the book, how did you choose which artists to profile?
Quentin de Pimodan: That was a research process. We first checked for their online process, which is kind of easy in a way because in Qatar and Bahrain they are really into social media. Yet for some countries it was a bit more difficult. But we’ve also been introduced by other artists because their work is kind of a community, if not a family. So, for example, DJ Outlaw (Mohamed Hassan) who works a lot in Bahrain, introduced us to the ‘godfather’ of urban art in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This guy introduced us to other artists and like that, through contacts, through word of mouth, we got to people.
It’s not always the “best” breakdancer, the “best” graffiti artist, it’s also the ones we think best represent this scene and so sometimes it’s the oldest, the people who started first, the more productive, the more serious about it, the more professional about it.
What did you discover in Qatar?
Q: Qatar was very surprising because we encountered a small amount of artists. It was the last country we went to. Only a few artists from the rest of the GCC countries were even able to tell us about the artists in Qatar.
M: All of the artists we encountered and put in the book, if they weren’t born in Qatar then they had at least lived here for 15 years or more. One beat boxer Ahmad Aba-Zaid, he is of Syrian origin; one rapper ‘El Nasser Lel Mazzika’ is of Egyptian origin; one female graffiti artist Assil Diab. Again, there are other graffiti artists but we wanted to have at least one female artist so we decided to choose Assil. She is a Sudanese artist who was born in Qatar. We also have the father of b-boying in Qatar, Abdelhakim Mohamed Omar.
What is important for you to present in this book?
M: It is a book that is not a documentation of the artworks that are being done in the region but it’s more about the intimacy, how they evolve, about the environment in which they evolve in their own artworks, what are the struggles that they’re facing. It’s explaining the GCC countries urban art field through the artists’ eyes. The way the photographs were taken was very important. For each artist you get four photographs: we have one which is the portrait of the artist – I was asking the artists to think about all the steps which they have been through to arrive where they are now. Then there’s the artist-in-production which is pretty straightforward, an artist doing graffiti or singing or dancing and so on.
The texture is the key photograph. It is the most conceptual as well because when you look at it you’re a little bit surprised because you’re asking yourself “why is this photograph here?” It is the one that’s representing the intimacy. Imagine I am going to your place and going into your living room and I’m taking a photo of part of your living room, your couch, an artwork that’s hanging on the wall, objects that represent your personality. The fact that you chose those materials, it represents your taste and your intimacy. So this photograph has the aim to bring the readers into the intimacy of the artist, like they were having a private conversation with you and that’s the key.
How is it written?
Q: We let them speak actually. The point is to let them describe their environment. It’s written in a journalistic way because what we did was quote these artists and let them develop their whole reasoning, yet of course always asking some precise questions. We always had to remember the fact that they were being interviewed by two Frenchmen – they can’t avoid at one point in the interview comparing with the Western urban art scene. That’s something we had to think about – are they talking about the Western scene because we are here in front of them? Actually we understood that the comparison is unavoidable in that kind of art because this is the comparison we have from their family, from their friends, and they always have to stand up for their art because everybody is telling them “yeah but you’re just copy pasting,” “it’s not our culture” etc.
Why did you choose to focus on urban art specifically?
Q: The good thing with urban art is it’s a worldwide language. Every young guy from Tokyo to Texas will understand those codes. They are the same wherever you are on the planet and a lot of artists tell us “I wear the same thing,” “I watch the same shows,” “I listen to the same music,” thanks to the internet by the way. So it’s a common culture and it’s easier to explain something complicated such as the GCC through common visions. I think that through that book, any young person – even not interested in street art – directly will understand some part of the GCC.
Also, the interesting thing with street art and urban art in general is that it’s been sky rocketing for the past few years in the Arab world as a whole but also in the West. Now it’s touching every level of society – not only youth. We wanted to see what the update in the GCC was.
M: Quentin is very close to the Middle East – his father used to work in Kuwait for ten years, all of his sisters were born in Kuwait. I was born in Bahrain and I used to live here and I’ve come back. Our approach was to give another angle back in the West for example; the image for most Europeans is they consider the GCC as being Dubai. For us it was very important to give another angle, showing that there are a lot of artists working and expressing themselves, trying to explain this movement.
That was our aim, to give this other angle in this book, so we narrowed it down to one particular type of art by showing the fact that because it’s a common language, visually speaking when you look at the photographs and when you read, you can easily get close to the artists.
So what were your general impressions of each country?
M: It’s definitely different. Again it’s a very important point because as foreigners we think that people tend to mix all the GCC countries together whereas in reality there’s definitely a different identity, different situations where the artist evolves. The way they express themselves of course is so different too. Again, what we want to express in this book, our approach is to say, yes, they’re using a code which is understood in the world, but they are taking it and re-shaping and re-formulating it in their own ways. For example, they created calligraffiti here which is unique and from this region. They are making moves in Oman for example which is related to their traditional dance. That’s the beauty in it. It’s a very positive book, trying to give an angle that is different and especially nowadays – we needed to show the public that there is something alive here; creativity, expression and beauty.
Q: It’s quite difficult to compare them directly because they face very different situations. Most surprising I would say is Saudi Arabia because of the vision as a westerner you have about Saudi and to see that there is actually a scene, and a powerful one, is surprising. We were 100 percent sure that in Dubai it would be very easy and the artists would be at every corner, and it’s true that the scene is powerful but it’s not always true that it’s easy for them.
Where are the books available to buy from?
Q: We’re now looking for funding in Qatar so we can distribute the book in the country. Otherwise the books are available in Jashanmal stores GCC-wide and in Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain airports.
M: We wanted to make sure the book is 100 percent made in the GCC and available all over the region. The target is the people coming to Doha, that don’t have the time to discover the arts scene and instead of taking a souvenir from the shops, they have the possibility to buy this book that describes the scene.