The Saudi-based artist showing Nike what it should do next

"Art is propaganda, art is a voice, art is a means to seek change." With quotes like this, and art like *that*, contemporary artist Ali Cha’aban is fast becoming one of the most important messengers of his generation...
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The Saudi-based artist showing Nike what it should do next

You and Nike go way back - what's the story there?

"It all started with the Vice x Nike collaboration where I produced the Satellite Culture campaign; a means of revisiting our past with humble intentions before the internet with the '97 Air Max. From there grew a long-lasting friendship with the brand, with them giving me the opportunity to customise a Nike React for the Ramadan campaign, Dusk to Dawn. Ever since, it's become a supportive brand that helps me create my vision - and it's only the beginning. Now I’m working on a new collaboration with Nike which will be released soon."

Tell us the meaning behind this specific piece, then...

"As I started working closely with Nike, I was inspired by its global impact, and the weight of social responsibility it holds. It was a moment of triumph for me when it launched the Nike Pro Hijab. As a Muslim, when a global brand recognises a religion [like this] it gives the message that ‘my’ Arabian peninsula as a whole is very inspiring. Its richness in culture and diversity makes it a melting pot that inspires the masses. Here, I created a mock campaign that infuses the past and present, heritage and modernity, catering to the diversity of my culture. The niqab is a huge part of that, and often misconceived. Some view them as oppressive, but they don't understand that so many have freely chosen that path in life."

"I felt like Nike’s next steps should be to cater to veiled culture because it would be incredible to create a dri-fit niqab that allows women to exercise while keeping the poise of their religion. I partnered with Abdullah Al-Shehri because he’s an incredible portrait photographer who really captures emotions, and since the veil doesn’t allow much of the face to show, the challenge was to let the eyes speak. The model is Amy Roko, a social-media influencer who is known for her niqab. She's flaunted her lifestyle under the veil without ever implying that it has been a crutch."

What was the driving force behind you getting into art?

"My first years in college were focused on studying pre-med, but certain things that happened like the war back in 2006 in Lebanon, detached me from that notion. I didn’t always want to become an artist, but I was motivated by the means to comment on social and political events via visual representations. That evolved into wanting to become a storyteller of sorts. With a major in Anthropology, I organically then became somewhat of a pop-culture analyst."

What's your overridding message?

"Art functions as a haven for ideas, art is propaganda, art is a voice, art is a means to seek change. As you can see, it's a form of communication that goes beyond normal discourse; it has the ability to drive a notion from said to felt.

Many artists seek art to voice their opinion on the problems of the world. The world is very problematic, and in the age of social media the need for art is crucial in order to prompt people into taking action. I believe art decodes history."

Tell us about the art scene in the Middle East, where you fit in, how you feel it is evolving and why, and where you see it heading?

"There's a strong current of nostalgia running through my work but its significance is still vague. Does it reflect a longing for the innocence of childhood and the simplicity of the pre-digital age? Or is it a form of escapism from the current socio-political problems? That’s what I try to answer. 

The contemporary art scene has raised the bar for emerging artists and designers to create tributes to their culture with an evolving state of mind. I can sit here and mention the entire peninsula. But off the top of my head, there's Khalid Zahid who has combined Islamic art and motifs in a non-conventional way, Ali Shehabi, whose photography has built a cult following, and designers such as Too Dark To See Tomorrow, Arwa Al Banawi and Mohammed Khoja (Hindamme) who have all impacted the fashion scene as Arabs. I always say that I’m super-proud of my generation. Young Arabs have been creating and producing things that have seriously put us on the map. We have been able to forge an identity for ourselves and an ever-growing aesthetic that defines us."

Photos: Supplied