Street artists bring taste of Gulf to London

Art inspired by the streets is growing in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as three young artists are demonstrating as part of London’s Shubbak Festival

At midnight on Monday night, Londoners coming home late via Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, might have caught a glimpse of top Dubai street artist Fathima Mohiuddin at work transforming a wall with her spraycans and marker pens.

Her art, which tends to involve intricate abstract patterns full of curling tendrils, was commissioned as part of the Shubbak Festival and, more specifically, as part of Breaking Cover, a celebration of the work of three artists from the Gulf who are inspired by the streets. There’s much more going on in the region than people elsewhere understand, she says.

“That’s my main goal in being here, to represent something that people didn’t know about. People are interested to hear about the fact that there’s street art in Dubai, and especially a female street artist.”

The other two participating artists are both based in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia. Shaweesh made a name for himself in 2012 after stencilling a piece on the street outside his house of the female Saudi Arabian Olympic runner Sarah Attar and posting it online, and has gone on to have work included at shows at the Venice Biennale and Jeddah Art Week.

eL Seed
One of French Tunisian ‘calligraffiti’ artist eL Seed's works in Algeria Image: eL Seed/Shubbak festival

For Breaking Cover, he took a pattern from fabric worn by Saudi women, and turned it into fly posters that have been put up all over London. While his day job is art director for a company that makes popular online videos, he is also known for his witty Photoshopped images showing scenes that blend reality and fantasy, like a young Prince Faisal at a United Nations conference sitting next to Yoda, and Captain America working with refugees.

Talal Al Zeid’s contribution to the festival is his series of traditional Saudi Arabian plates that have been decorated and painted with Arabic words relating to hospitality. He was born in Kuwait and grew up between Rome and Vienna, getting into graffiti as a teenager in the mid-90s.

Now his work is more sophisticated, taking inspiration from art movements like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. What’s important about having his work on display at Shubbak, he says, is that “it will spark a dialogue; people are going to start asking questions.”

That’s my main goal in being here, to represent something that people didn’t know about

Fathima Mohiuddin, Dubai street artist

Saudi Arabia doesn’t showcase local art, with big international museums and festivals, in quite the same way that Qatar and the UAE do, Al Zeid points out — “if you’re not living there it’s a bit difficult to really see what’s happening” — but there is a burgeoning creative scene there, which “started five years ago, or a bit more, and is gradually growing. There are more galleries, more artists, more exhibitions. Those are healthy indications of contemporary art.”

Dubai’s scene is evolving too, Fathima Mohiuddin says, and it’s full of multicultural cross-pollination. “There are a lot of artists moving to the city, which is amazing, and as the city grows, the arts scene will organically grow. It will be unique, because the circumstances are different, but I’m excited to see how it will develop its own identity.”