Arab Roots Inspire Ali Cha’aban's Artistic Vision

By Amira Elraghy
31 December 2018
Ali Cha’aban, Art
Though the self-identified "pop culture analyst" began creating art to explore his own identity, his pieces are reverberating across the Arab world

An entangled Arab identity, a permanent nostalgia, and a vision that combines past with present: that’s Ali Cha’aban – the millennial interdisciplinary artist who intimately explores the modern Arab identity and culture in fascinating, risk-taking works.

Last year, Cha’aban held his first solo exhibition Technicolor in Dubai at La Cantine du Faubourg, a showing highlighted by "The Broken Dream": pop-cultured Persian rugs embroidered with Stan Lee characters. The installation typified Cha’aban’s work: a kaleidoscopic clash of identities, underscored by a statement that, “it’s okay to be different”, he explains.

Cha’aban’s work has been exhibited in galleries from Paris to Jeddah to Beirut, each stop reflecting on the past and future of his relationship to pop-culture and identity.

“As a kid that was in an international school, I grew up very westernised,” he says. “My mum’s words started resonating with me as I grew older: she told me to not forget where I come from. I started to believe my Arabic heritage was more profound to me than the pop culture I consumed in my adolescence.”

Ali Cha'aban

You have always identified yourself as a pop culture analyst. Has this changed over time? How would you define yourself and your work now?
I still believe that I’m an analyst of our culture, however, I have become more of a philosopher, questioning the consequences of our upbringing and cultural impositions. My work is a result of multiple layers of observations that want to shape or create an emotion in the receiver, and start a debate with oneself.

You’ve wandered the Arab world and have lived in Europe for quite a time as well. Now you’re based in Jeddah. What made you relocate and how does your new home influence your work?
Jeddah became my greatest inspiration when it came to my work. It’s a melting pot of so many cultures that aspire for greater things. The city is rich in history that strikes you from every wall and door. Take a trip to the old Al Balad, and see if the architecture does not strike you. There’s a certain mysticism behind it that I incorporate in my work.

What other places have informed your art?
Egyptian cinema has been a heavy influence on my work. It has its own culture and sub-culture, from design to typography, and even to its censorship. The aesthetics behind it are timeless and are still heavy with nostalgia.

You were born and raised in the GCC. How is thought-provoking art received there compared to the rest of the Arab world?
The culture in the Khaleej is full of nomadic attributes and traveling folklores that shaped its arts and traditions. In the Levant civilisation, the culture is heavily dependent on nostalgic interpretations that are carried down from one generation to the next. That is where my inspiration comes from, to revisit the past with humble understandings.

Despite being raised in the Gulf, you come from Lebanese origins. How do your roots impact your art?
My upbringing plays a big part in my artistic journey. I was born to a family that are conservative and with that came a high sense of spirituality in the house. As a rebellious kid that didn’t fully grasp the idea of energy, that spirituality meant nothing to me. As I grew older, I started revisiting things my mum used to say, or actions she used to take that made me realise tremendous things about who I am as an artist.

How challenging it is to be satirical when you’re amongst a religion, culture and region with sensitivities?
It’s not difficult. Let’s face it: there certain cultural traditions that need to be respected. These factors need to be taken into consideration when creating an artwork. The artwork should have a sense of vagueness when touching on sensitive topics. I’m not saying you can’t question anything you want – you simply need to refine your message so you don’t come off ignorant or insensitive. I like restrictions because they put me in a box, a guided box, which in turn allows me to think outside of its confines.

Ali Cha’aban is exhibiting a Metaphysics series in the Sharjah Islamic Biennale