Lowercase with...The Candy Wrapper Queen, Ghadah Hamzah AlRabee

I'm a fan of your work and I'm really interested in the concept so let me just start by asking, why candy bar wrappers?

Chocolate wraps are the first thing that catch the eye when you’re picking up chocolate.  There are a lot of childhood memories associated with them. Wrapping is an important part of preparing a gift on special occasions and weirdly it’s the first thing you throw away once you’re done with the candy.

It’s like how people will throw each other away once they get what they want.

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That’s a little dark.  Is that idea of being thrown away reflected in the work? Are you trying to make the rejects beautiful?

I think the idea I want to deliver is that we need to stop judging each other without looking for the essence of the individual. The beauty of our true spirit lies within us, not outside... For example I always wear my black hijab, which I am very proud of, does this mean that my thoughts are black as well?!

Look at my work, full of colours and different shapes. Those is my true thoughts and they won’t appear unless you look for it.

A lot of your work is portraits, some of famous Saudis and I've also seen a version of famous paintings, how do you choose your subjects? 

I’ve been fascinated by the masters (da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso, Salvador Dali) since I was a kid.  Their paintings have had a deep influence on me and whenever I create a painting I try to have a philosophy for it.  Being mindful of God’s will, I try to bring it back to life with a new take that suits our religion and traditions. Some of the master’s work is forbidden for us ideologically or religiously but I’m careful to present Eastern beliefs and traditions in every work I create.  I’m proud of that and I want the rest of the world to see that.

The piece that you send that makes Jesus looks like a Saudi prince with his falcon is pretty provocative.  I really liked it, what was the idea behind that?  How was it received in Saudi?

In some of my work, I like to leave the interpretation to the viewer, but this particular work was a direct response to rumours that Saudi Arabia acquired this work for Da Vinci. The truth is that the UAE has acquired this work for the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with it. I wanted to symbolize the idea in Emirati uniform and present the courage of the Emirati people along with the sign of victory. This work was not meant to be a commentary on Christianity, I hope Christians understand that.

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Does the fact that certain pieces are forbidden bother you?   

Of course it does because it means I can’t enjoy the work of masters because the work contains things that are forbidden to me. That’s why I like to redo it in a way that doesn’t bother me when I look at it.

How do culture and religion play into your artistic process?

My culture and my religion are the main motivators of my art and without them, my art has no meaning. Like every great artist in this country, I put a huge part of my beliefs and religion in my art. Thank God I’m able to do that.

One of the pictures we used to promote this interview was a woman driving a hot rod which I thought was really cool. I think people outside Saudi will want to know, is it difficult being a female artist? If it is, what kind of challenges do you face and how do you overcome them?

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Honestly, I can’t deny the difficulty for a woman to become successful unless she has a man that supports her and this is the nature of our eastern traditions. It comes from a deep respect for women.

Personally, I faced a lot of challenges from some in accepting my Niqab and some think that I cannot communicate or express my emotions unless I remove it. I just want to say that there are many artists you’ve never seem—you still enjoy their work.

Honestly, even if my niqab didn’t exist, I would’ve loved to be named the Mulutham Artist (ed. note: Mulutham means someone who’s face is covered) as this creates excitement and intrigue. I think the best example of that is the shredded Banksy painting. He’s influenced millions in his absence, look how powerful the idea is. For me, God has favored me with a husband who has encouraged me and supported me and my children, thank God.

What are your influences from outside the country?

I like figures who used their life in the pursuit of truth or what is right. I like to learn more about them and their success, people like Malcom X or the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi or Margaret Keane. These stories strongly influence me and make me believe that hard work gets you where you want to go. I love learning about successful people no matter their nationalities because I believe in common humanity (and spirituality) and I can’t be judgmental about them.

What's the art world like in Saudi Arabia?  Is there a big market?  Do you have favourite galleries?

  Saudi has truly become a host to great art.   For that I believe Saudi has become a fertile market and the people have become more conscious and open minded.  They want to be exposed to different kind of arts. Personally, I like first Athar Gallery and I’m proud that I belong to it now. Also I like visiting Opera Gallery and every time I visit it I find interesting and strange art. Also I like Ayyam Gallery, Hafez Gallery, Empty Quarter Gallery and Almasahah Alfarghah Gallery.

Who are your favourite emerging artists?

Among the Arabic artists, I like the work of a lot of them like the artist Ahmad Hussain, Nahar Marzoq, Sadeeq Wasel, Abdulaziz Aasher, Monther Sharabi, Ajeeb Ajeeb, and a lot of others. 

Editor’s note: the actual purchaser of the Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi is unknown.

This interview was translated from Arabic and edited for clarity.