Growing up in an environment that planted and nourished my love of art, some of the first works of art I ever came across were distinct, vibrantly designed portraits of singers from an era I’d only ever seen cinematically. They looked so much like photographs to my young eye that it was hard to acknowledge there was a bigger picture I still hadn’t seen -that of the Pop Art movement. My passive observation turned into a passion, and I found myself in a whirl of fascination. Over time, I developed an eye for how different branches of Western art are recreated and reciprocated by contemporary Arab artists in the MENA region. Talent seemed to redefine itself as the ability to replicate the classic without stripping any authenticity away. That is what I saw of pop art in The Middle East: its evolution into a modern and unique vision after a period of being ignored.

To a nostalgia fanatic like me, perceptions of the world take the form of rose-tinted glasses, gramophones and typewriters. Mysteries lie in wait to be discovered, making us wonder what we could get a grip of if we existed during that one, golden age. Without art, how can one relive a time that is long gone, but still longed for?

The present’s take on the past, expressed and envisioned through art, quenches the type of wanderlust that only a time-traveller can otherwise satisfy.

Let me take you back to the 1960’s. Warhol is screen-testing with Lou Reed, and the next hour he’s with the rest of his entourage, his muses soon to be turned into bold, colorful silk-screen montages. Surrounded by the limelight and glamour of Hollywood icons, he chooses to adjust Lennon and Monroe into a frame that would bring people closer to their idols. He then wanders off to the local superstore and oddly stocks up dozens of cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. These would later provide the concept for one of his earliest works which reflected on the commercial and consumerist American lifestyle. Many of his controversial pieces that once left New Yorkers baffled are nowadays heatedly dicussed at high profile exhibitions and art institutes.

Fast forward to the 2000’s. The Pop Art scene works at a slower pace than usual, but questions remain hanging in the air: is it limited to one geographical spot? Does the desire to experience Pop Art travel beyond just visiting the Big Apple? Is anyone stopping pop art from slipping into rigidity?

Meanwhile, the Arab pop art scene was waiting for someone to re-dynamize it. The way Arab pop culture was communicated to the rest of the world needed a twist. The lyrics and tomes we were raised with and the identity expressed by daily routines were looking for a new home.

“Andy Wahloo” – El Moustache, 2016

This is where the story of “El Moustache” comes to life. A quirky and unorthodox Algerian creator, he started his pop art work using novel methods. Unlike the 1970’s pioneers, Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg, El Moustache’s pieces are digital, and he has the option of promoting them through social media channels rather than traditional artworld streams.

The fundamental goal of Pop Art, coupled with the surrounding socio-cultural environment and its participants, led him to create one of the most unique and outstanding portfolios to be seen in the Middle East and North Africa. He addresses relatable issues such as immigration and brings awareness towards the Southern, Berber-speaking parts of Algeria that are often overlooked.

Fida Hussan

To say the least, he is a rarity to take pride in. It isn’t everyday that we come across captivating stories told through edgy visuals in true Pop Art fashion. With the rush of life, it becomes harder for art to be interpreted and for us to read between the lines. To think beyond the artwork is a skill that takes years to acquire. El Moustache’s work defies that by innovating the widespread tradition of the 60s into fathomable and gripping eye-catchers.

With the rise of the feminist movement to popularity, many pop artists have arrived to the scene to change the game and use female empowerment as their motive. Among the creatives of this Eastern/Western blend is Saudi artist Fida Al Hussan. Hussan holds a competence in pairing images of feminine power with Saudi cultural patterns, and associates them with portraits of celebrities like Gigi Hadid and Lupita Nyong’, as Warhol did. She translates emotions into a series that speaks volumes in a single glance.

A new face to look out for is the fearless Hannah Habibi. Based in London, Habibi creates symbolic photographs and prints knitted with intricate strings reminiscent of tribal and Islamic elements taken from Middle Eastern history. She takes her audience on a journey toward a globalised concept of Arab women. With the spread of her success throughout the region, she has given pop art a newfound, quirky meaning.

Habibi and Zarek Rahman, Ophelia, 2011
“Made You Look!” – Hannah Habibi, 2013.

These brilliant individuals are what I consider the meeting points that can be found within an East-West conversation. They allow spectators and anyone interested in art to gradually take in the idea of visual understanding to another scope. From one idea to another, this process forms a network of minds that keeps the spirited relay of important messages ongoing.

To explore more pop art in the Middle East, check out these artists:
Hassan Hajjaj (on artmejournal)
Zena Khalil
Rasha Eleyan
All images courtesy of the artists’ websites.

Zina Qabbani

I am a passionate writer, photographer, and German language student at German Jordanian University. Out of my love for photography, I started an Instagram journal for my photos.

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