A Lebanese artist born and raised in Kuwait and currently based in Jeddah, Ali Cha’aban has exhibited with galleries including his current hometown’s Ayyam, Beirut’s Mark Hachem, and Galerie Nikki Diana Marquardt in Paris. He’s also seen himself represented by Hafez Gallery at Art Abu Dhabi, the Beirut Art Fair and Art Dubai.

Often labelled an observer of culture, a thread often reflected in his work, he views himself as an analyst pop-culture, writes Nadia Al-Sayed. His work revolves around the notion of nostalgia which we see depicted in his art, tackling socio-political issues such as the Arabian identity and the state of dystopia.

The Confused Arab by Ali Cha'aban

The Confused Arab II by Ali Cha’aban

You have a background in anthropology, do you think it has had an influence on your art, and if so, how? Anthropology has catered to my needs, it helped me reflect the messages I try to convey in my work. The method of creating a piece that impacts the viewer by creating an emotional attachment or resentment towards the piece of work is where anthropology functions; because it allows me to trigger a certain aspect in receiver by knowing their way of thinking.

Your most recent piece ‘The Broken Dreams’, tells a tale of what happens when your Western and Eastern (Arab) counterparts collide and clash, can you elaborate on that? I try to familiarize myself with both sides of my upbringing. The clash between a kid that was constantly infatuated with the western civilizations and the adult that is super-proud of his Arabism. The Persian rug has its own prominence from visual to felt; the Persian rug is found in all sorts of homes, whether poor or rich, we all have that unmindful appreciation towards it. Experimenting with mixing the pop culture with traditional aesthetics felt like a broken dream, to somehow connect what I loved as a child to what I love now as an adult. These two are parallel, they can never meet at one point, so it sums up as an identity crisis; الحروب في القلوب, the wars at heart.

Who are three people who inspire your creativity? Mounir Fatmi, a contemporary artist. Mahmoud Darwish, the nostalgic poet. Khalid Zahid, my best friend and fellow contemporary artist. They all tackle a particular part of me that flows into art. Whether Fatmi’s eye for details, or Darwish’s words that give you goosebumps, or Zahid’s technique of being sporadic; they all resonate with me. 

Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like being an artist in the Middle East, especially the gulf? Do you face any obstacles? Whether limited materials, and exposure, and freedom of expression? Let’s face it, the idea of freedom of expression in the entire world does not come without repercussions. So understanding that philosophy will help you develop your work with more confidence, if you’re confident in what you convey then the critical response won’t affect you. As an artist in the Middle-East I was able to develop a thicker and tougher skin, because I endured much criticism without being phased, especially when we have multi-layered cultures that don’t necessary agree with your way of thinking. My work has been called “depressing” on multiple occasions; but that didn’t stop me from always talking about the Arabic identity. 

What is the process of each piece, from the thought process to the execution? As a contemporary artist, I consider myself from the school of Marcel Duchamp, an art that serves the mind. Once we depart with the ideals that art should be aesthetically pleasing, we find ourselves in a place where the idea, concept or message is more important than the execution. So the process relies on an idea you want to convey, a topic that needs to be addressed. Once that idea is finalized, I try creating the piece in a manner that is vaguer than literal, to allow the viewer a form of cognition, so they can have their own perception of the art.

This Too Shall Pass by Ali Cha'aban

This Too Shall Pass by Ali Cha’aban, 2016; 125cm circumference. Neon on barbed wire fence, photo paper, lightbox installation.

How has social media, and globalisation had an impact on your career? Connectivity. You connect on a larger scale, multifaceted observers with their own connotations of your work. Which in return helps me mature my message, refine it and cultivate it for a larger mass to identify with my work.

Is your process more about the journey to the end result, or finishing the piece, or both? Art is like a story that never has a happy ending, from creation to display. It starts with that emotional attachment you establish with your work and then releasing it to the public and allowing it to be admired or scrutinized becomes a tough task. So, in a way; you’re displaying a journey of emotions to the public hoping for the minimum amount of regrets.

Arab culture has such rich and underrated art, music, literature. Let’s celebrate it.  Can you name a few Arab artists (whether music, visual art, literary figures, etc) who you think people should know about? I can sit here and mention the entire peninsula. But off the top of my mind, there is a dear friend and a genius Rashed Al Shashai, who has revolutionized the mean of tackling Islamic art in a non-conventional way, and away from the typical Islamic motifs. There is also Marwah Al Mugait, who symbolizes feminism and the woes of women so intricately without any form of censorship. Khalild Zahid, who’s work touches on social issues many steer away from. Sarah Al Abdali, a fellow artist whose work is rich in emotion, sadness and aesthetics that take you to older non-existent places.

What has been the most significant piece you have created for society, that you think is important to put out there and why? It’s probably سيمر كل مر “This Too Shall Pass,” touching on the topics of refugees. The whole series depicts emotional stages that a person who is displaced endures. Anger, Resolution and then Hope. This piece is the second emotion which is resolution, the significance of it is reminding us that there’s no obstacle we can’t overcome, by becoming one with it and accepting it as part of our journey. 

What has been the most significant piece you have created for yourself and why? I’d have to say غرباء في كل مكان “Strangers Everywhere.” Alan Kiki once said, “The key benefit of our Arabic nationality, is that we are strangers everywhere. Even strangers in our own home,” and thats an emotion I always feel, that I truly don’t belong wherever I go, I have this homesickness for a home to which I cannot return to or a home which maybe never was. 

What’s your advice to someone who is passionate about art but is limited due to exposure, and resources within their society? I always believe art is not limited to exposure, if your art has sense of authenticity, something that hasn’t been seen or tackled before; your work will surely find its way to the public’s eye. Being an artist is not an easy task, but the satisfaction in the end compensates for all the grief any upcoming artist experience. My best advice is do art for yourself and not for the public’s recognition.

How do you think art as a career in the Middle East has affected your success, has it acted as a motivation, or an obstacle? It’s been a rough ride, with its ups and downs, but in the end the respect and appraisal I get has surely strengthened my drive to create more. With all that is happening in the world, an artist like me can never rest, because there are so many topics to discuss. We as artists decode and record history for the ages. To relive a certain era through our work. That’s what motivates me, to keep creating until you become a reference for someone; an inspiration or an idol. 

Cha’aban’s works include This Too Shall Pass (2016); Stangers Everywhere (2016); The Broken Dream (2016); The Confused Arab II (2016), What’s halal my killer? What’s haram my dealer? (2013); and Subject to Extinction. To keep updated on Ali and his work you can find him on Instagram @alichaaban