Our love/hate affair with the mainstream could easily be considered as the idiom of the century. We praise the constant quest for individualism, tricking ourselves into thinking that by boycotting everything mainstream, we’ve delivered humanity from its consumerist doom. However, if anyone were to do humanity a favor and honestly study the intricate workings of the human mind, then they would ultimately be lead to the following: what’s so wrong with embracing the mainstream for what it is. It’s made up of the old and the new, the beautiful and the ugly, and the fashionable and ‘uncool’. We’ve all been there; our torrential relationship with what is ‘okay’ according to the mainstream, defines the values of this very generation. Mock it, love it, or even buy into it—the cultural artifacts of modern society lead us to both comply and to revolt, to innovate the way in which we process knowledge, and to produce art that stirs mind and soul. Prompting this discussion, and forcing us to honestly re-examine our values, is the resounding work of 23-year-old Lebanese artist, Ali Cha’aban.
It is truly rare to encounter a mind that flawlessly portrays this relationship. With his background in communication and multimedia, he had earned himself a position at one of the most prestigious ad agencies around right upon graduating, and considers this as nothing more than an instigator to his artistic mission to further explore quirks in popular culture. Be it nontraditional or nostalgic, and everything in between, anything pertaining to the values of Middle Eastern modern society receives the Ali Cha’aban treatment.
Regionally, he’s become renowned for what he calls ‘sometimes deranged idioms and notions’ that he attempts to depict via his artwork. With an affinity for digital art, installations, stencils, graffiti and a recent self-discovery in Arabism and calligraphy, Ali looks to reel in the observer with his candor. Ali might believe that he discovered calligraphy a little too late, yet we were taken with his depiction of the common saying, “You feel me bro” in Arabic typography, that we had to turn it into our September cover. Responding positively or negatively doesn’t matter, as long as a response is achieved. His work received accolades throughout the region, and we’re sure a lot of you remember him from the street art show, ‘Some call it Noise’ back in 2010. Saudi Arabia especially celebrated the artist’s tongue-in-cheek references to Saudi youth culture via his series, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll marry you’, or swear words created out of beautiful calligraphy. He recounts this experience as unforgettable, also counting his exhibition in Khobar as one of his favorites.
Since his time as an art director with Impact BBDO here in Kuwait, Ali has gone on to work in the Middle East and Europe. However, he remains connected to our local society via the affluent social media culture that has taken over our region in the most astonishing of ways. Currently working on the second part of the latest series, ‘Film’ Ali reinvents how we perceive vintage Arab icons, superimposing Western cultural symbols onto Eastern artists, and vice versa. We’re honored to share two pieces from this collection in this feature, with Egyptian actors Rushdi Abaza and Ismail Yasin donning emblematic New York and Los Angeles caps. We’ll leave the interpretation all up to you. Regardless of his next move, rest assured his work will be coming to a town near you, as this young soul plans to exhibit his work throughout the region.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness is a state of contentment and intense joy. I’m usually content when I have successfully transferred/transformed an idea from my head into an artwork. When my message is structured in the form of art both aesthetically and physically, then I’m content.
So my idea of perfect happiness stems from when I’m fresh out of ideas and no more concepts to create, and all the visualizations that I could produce have been tackled.
What is your greatest fear?
Failure. It’s every human’s or should be every human’s greatest fear. A human without a purpose or a goal is rather soulless, in my opinion. You need the fear of failing to thrive and make something of your life. Fear is a friend that is misunderstood.
In my mind I’m trying to go places, become somebody prominent for the right reasons and not the superficial ones. I want to create artwork that would later be impacting, studied or used as an example in a classroom. Art is meant to disturb, so if you initiate a reaction from the viewer, whether good or bad, your message was successful; I fear not being able to attain that sort of degree.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
The trait that I’m in a love/hate relationship with is my ‘openness to experience’ to word it correctly. The intellectual curiosity I have for things, items and people. It’s my best friend and worst enemy. Though it gives me the push that I need to experience new things, it is also the very kryptonite that hits me with a writer’s block. The whole battle I have within me, the curiously inventive persona versus the cautious and soon-to-be-boring one. My ideas are from usual and more than often my ‘unusual’ ideas are left scattered and not depicted which, reflects back on me in a sort of a gloomy state. The fact that I can’t express them, too busy to express them, or skillfully unable to attend to them, translates to ‘I’ve hit rock bottom.’ In this case it’s usually my work, taking the shift from Advertising to Fashion Marketing to see if I’ll fail or succeed in that field; or the huge shift that I decided to take on with my art work, with finding myself as an Arab artist who discovered his Arabism a bit too late, and changing my modules of art from westernized pop cultures to heavy dichotomies of the Arab peninsula and now experiencing the difficulties of Arabic typography, “khatt” and calligraphy that are extremely challenging.
So yeah, curiosity killed the cat.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Sensitivity. The world, the audience, the people, have become far too sensitive for their own good. They tend to experience unpleasant emotions rather too quickly. So quick to get angry with whatever I posted/said, annoyed, or plain hateful. What’s worse, they never seem to admit it. I’ve seen people become insulted or find my work preposterous, without even understanding the full picture, just like that. So basic-intellect and emotional instability combined, wow. Analysis and freaky sensitivity are not my cup of tea.
Which living person do you most admire?
Aside from my parents, my late-sister Rasha, may God rest her soul, her patience was admirable. The abundance of patience she contained was mind-boggling, and I inherited that level of calm and cool from her. Even though she’s not a “living person” but I do owe her a lot. Then comes my sister Yara who has always treated me as the eldest, even though she was five years older; she gave me confidence to the level of narcissism; and “I’m coo’ with that.”
What is your greatest extravagance?
Speed. S-P-E-E-D. Working at an advertising agency as soon as I graduated granted me that luxury. It creates a machine out of you. Strict deadlines and annoying clients help you become a Speedy Gonzales in the land of art. Quick… Quick… Quick… I like everything quick, I like pressure; we turn pressure into treasure.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Laugh and grow fat.
Surely you can overlook the superficial preference of this phrase and understand it’s more profound meaning. Acquire an appetite and grow fat.
When were you happiest?
No one is ever REALLY happy. But I have to say twice in my life, seeing my mom’s facial reaction at my graduation ceremony, Dad being proud of me when I brought in my first employment contract. There were like two days between those two occurrences. Got hired as soon as I graduated.
Which talent would you most like to have?
DRUMS. I want to be a drummer. The chaos, the noise, I WANT THAT. Then incorporating that into my art, by adding wet paint to the drumhead and then creating splashes of paint via drum solo. Excuse my Pollock moment. Oh, and athleticism means a lot to me.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
One of my best and notorious artworks created revolves around a controversial movie topic in Saudi Arabia. The whole idea was conjured up from a simple hashtag about humorous names for fictional Saudi adult movies. It evolved into a trilogy that is yet to be completed with the first two parts sold already, one of them being owned by a very close friend of mine. These two pieces have been discussed over and over again for touching on very sensitive topics that revolve around men promising women marriage in order to get involved physically, named “لا تخافي حتزوجك” and “اللحم الابيض المتوسط”.
Side note: Now I’m notoriously known for publishing curse-words in national Saudi prints. Some of my artwork had swear words in them, but they were published in the newspapers regardless, because you know… art? Ha-ha.
Where would you most like to live?
Home is where I rest my head at the end of the day, being content with whatever I have accomplished. That’s a place I call home. Home is where I want to live. Home is a state of mind more than a geographical location. The reason I say this is because I spent 2013 traveling and relocating due to my job. Spent some time in Italy, witnessed the 2nd revolution in Egypt, chilled in Dubai, traveled hours by car just to meet a client in Germany. But I miss Kuwait, my physical home and where I was born, but it’s still a big question whether I want to spend the rest of my life traveling or settling back at home.
Ali Cha’aban is totally social. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Alichaaban, and Tumblr: www.alichaaban.tumblr.com.