French artists Quentin de Pimodan (writer) and Melchior de Tinguy (photographer) have been best friends since they were kids and while they each grew up in Paris, they have strong connections to the GCC region. Melchior was born right here in Bahrain, while Quentin’s family has been based in Kuwait for decades. It was their love of art and this knowledge of the Middle East that brought them together in a project now known as ‘The Khaleeji Voice’, a six-part book series about each of the GCC nations and their respective urban art cultures. Intrigued, we had to find out more, and so we met up with the both of them at Bahrain’s latest art hub, Malja.
When you were coming up with the content for the book, how did you choose which representative artists to profile?
Quentin de Pimodan: First we started with Bahrain because we are based here. We first checked for their online process, which is kind of easy because in Bahrain they are really into social media. Yet for some countries it was a bit more difficult.
We’ve also been introduced by other artists because their work is kind of a community, if not a family, so for example, DJ Outlaw (Mohamed Hassan) who works a lot in Bahrain introduced us to the ‘godfather’ of urban art in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. This guy introduced us to other artists and like that, through contacts, through word of mouth, we got to people.
It’s not always the ‘best’ breakdancer, the ‘best’ graffiti artist, it’s also the ones we think best represent this scene and so sometimes it’s the oldest, the people who started first, the more productive, the more serious about it, the more professional about it. Not the guy that does it once in a while every two months.
We have a thriving art scene, particularly in Bahrain. How did you narrow it down?
Melchior de Tinguy: It was important to us not to put all the artists of the GCC because you don’t need a thousand artists to represent a scene. For us it was a way to explain the burgeoning art scene within urban art, explaining the GCC countries through the artists’ eyes.
For Bahrain, we discovered quite quickly that the two pillars of the graffiti art scene were HuviL (Mahmood Alshargawi) and LeonD (Mohamed Alaabar). For rap, we discovered Flipperachay (Hussam Aseem) who is working with DJ Outlaw, as well as The Mystro (Hamad Al Fardan). We also have photographer Eman Ali, as it’s also very important for us to represent female artists.
What was it especially important for you to present in this book?
MdT: It is not a documentation of the artworks that are being done in the region but it’s more about the intimacy, how they evolve, about the environment in which they evolve in their own artworks, the struggles they’re facing. It’s explaining the GCC countries urban art field through the artists’ eyes.
The way the photographs were taken was very important. For each artist you get four photographs: we have a portrait of the artist. Then there’s the artist-in-production doing graffiti or singing or dancing and so on.
The texture is the key photograph. It is the one that represents the intimacy. Imagine I am going to your place and going into your living room and I’m taking a photo of your couch, an artwork that’s hanging on the wall, objects that represent your personality. This photograph has the aim of bringing the readers into the intimacy of the artist, like they were having a private conversation with you.
Why did you choose to focus on urban art specifically?
QdP: The good thing with urban art is it’s a worldwide language. Every young guy from Tokyo to Texas will understand those codes. It’s a common culture and it’s easier to explain something complicated such as the GCC through common visions. Also, street art and urban art in general has been sky rocketing for the past few years in the Arab World as a whole but also in the West. We wanted to see what the update in the GCC was.
MdT: Our approach was to give another angle back in the West, for example, the image for most Europeans is they consider the GCC as being Dubai. For us it was very important to give another angle, showing that there are a lot of artists working and expressing themselves. There are no barriers visually speaking.
So what were your general impressions of each country? Which nation did you find most surprising?
MdT: It’s definitely different. Again it’s a very important point because as foreigners we think that people tend to mix all the GCC countries together whereas in reality there’s definitely a different identity, different situations where the artist evolves. The way they express themselves of course is so different too. Again, what we want to express in this book is to say, yes, they’re using a code which is understood in the world, but they are taking it and re-shaping and re-formulating it in their own ways. That’s the beauty in it. We needed to show the public that there is something alive here; creativity, expression and beauty.
QdP: Most surprising I would say is Saudi Arabia because of the vision as a Westerner you have and to see that there is actually a scene, and a powerful one, is surprising. Kuwait is very interesting also because the scene is huge but discreet. We were 100 percent sure that in Dubai it would be very easy and the artists would be at every corner, and it’s true that the scene is powerful but it’s not always true that it’s easy for them.
MdT: For us, in Paris, we find it normal and usual to find a graffiti artist scribbling the face of a woman on a wall but when we come here, and we see a woman represented on the wall as an art piece in the GCC, the impact is definitely not the same. It’s erasing the stereotype that we have. That’s the beauty.
The Khaleeji Voice is available in Jashanmals and Bahrain International Airport. Visit www.tothearabianstreet.wordpress.com