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Art that revives Arabic Culture in Urban context
‘we wanted to turn the city into a free art gallery and cover the bullet holes and war scars into colored artworks’
Omar and Mohamed - twins from Lebanon, running united Arabic street art group in Beirut - Ashekman. Having witnessed several civil wars in Lebanon in early 80’s young artists found a way to express themselves using art as a tool to tell their opinion and spread peace.
Their mission is clear - to fight social and political injustice and extremism that fuels the false propaganda about the Middle East. Artists believe in revival of Arabic culture, but in a more modern context. Their canvas is city walls, public places, everything that includes urban space. Urban street art now is widely acknowledged art globally, with famous artists like Banksy, Roa, Whils and many more. But Arabic street art is unique, because it includes a distinct form of expression that combines graffiti and calligraphy - divine art in Arabic culture. This combination is called Calligraffiti, and Ashekman brothers use Calligraffiti as their main tool to bring back the golden Arab age, where poetry, science, and knowledge were exported and translated to all cultures. They believe that their art is a mean to spread a positive message of tolerance and make positive change.
Arabic Culture Forum asked Ashekman brothers Omar and Mohamed to share their thoughts of art and work they do daily, that we believe reshape urban spaces and people in the Middle East.
- Can you please tell how did you start the united street art platform, what inspired you?
Born in the midst of the Lebanese civil war in the early '80s, we witnessed several wars in 3 decades, that made us start a platform to express our opinion. Being street artists allowed us to take a stance because we had a duty towards the Arab youth that we fought to represent. The youth who still want to live and aspire to grow in a non-violent environment, away from the corrupted politics and war.
When we started Ashekman, we wanted to create an uncensored platform to express our social and political opinions and we wanted to do it using our mother tongue language because we are proud of our heritage. We also wanted to portray our culture in a positive way.
We were inspired by our father who was a political thinker. He taught us how to think. And our mother, who is a painter. Ashekman is not just an artistic group but we’re a movement with a philosophy and a mission to revive the Arabic culture in an urban context. Through our art, we want to create change with positive messages and educational concepts.
- For me street art seems very controversial, because on one point it has a very significant purpose, but on the other hand it can be easily confused with public vandalism. How to draw a line between street art and vandalism?
It all depends on the mission of the artist, as Ashekman, we had an obligation towards our hometown Beirut and we wanted to turn the city into a free art gallery and cover the bullet holes and war scars into colored artworks.
- Can you please tell more about your recent exhibition in Dubai - Arab Golden Age? How it was received by visitors?
‘Arab golden age’ exhibition was a collaboration with MB&F M.A.D gallery in Dubai, in this exhibition we wanted to experiment with the Arabic calligraphy and mix it with mechanical art. The idea was to bring back the golden Arab age where science, knowledge, and poetry were exported and translated to all cultures.
The exhibition was a massive success, all our unique installations and art pieces were sold out during the event.
- Are your works international or on a local scale?
Ashekman did exhibitions and painted walls in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, UAE, KSA, Kazakhstan, Switzerland, United Kingdom, New York. We’re thinking local with our unique Arabic calligraphy style but we’re acting global with our universal message of peace, tolerance and positivity.
- How do you come up with new art ideas, do you think first of an idea, or are you inspired by places, events?
Our art is a mirror of the society, our inspiration comes from the events that happens around us. We brainstorm, do a deep research so we can have a solid concept before we execute the calligraffiti.
- Do you think/agree that street art is reshaping public spaces? If yes, how?
Street art plays a big role in reshaping public spaces. And a perfect example is our hometown Beirut that was transformed after the civil war into a hub for graffiti artists.
- How and when street art entered Middle East?
Street art was a tool used by soldiers, militia men and revolts in the Middle East, we were born in the midst of the Lebanese civil war in the 80’s and we remember militia men use to tag the name of their leaders and the slogans of their militias on the wall and this was a sign of power.
- What you consider to be good, positive feedback to your works?
Any constructive feedback is a good feedback but as artist we believe that, what makes a good street art is the impact on the society, it’s how you make people living in the neighborhood feel when they pass by the graffiti.
- Can you share a story that is behind of one of your art works?
Ashekman‘s 'Operation Salam’ has a big message and a deep meaning. The concept was to create a gigantic arabic calligraffiti of the word peace (arab. Salam) in Arabic on 85 rooftops in an ex-war zone in Tripoli Lebanon. Neighbors, kids, and families helped and started roaming the rooftops freely without any fear of being shot by snipers. Such a beautiful feeling to work with a passionate group of people that were waiting for peace so they can grow in life and live normally. This huge Kuffi* Calligraphy that can only be seen from space will help us achieve the rarest form of serenity, a state that we all search for but few find it... The concept was in our subconscious since the 80’s, where we've witnessed 2 civil wars and 3 external aggression against our country. Living in a state of war made us immune and more aware of the external plot that was planned for the Middle East. We learned how to draw in candle lights inside underground shelters, where we used to wait for the truce between battles in anticipation to see the sunlight. All these events marked our childhood and made us seek calmness, but peace of mind can’t be achieved unless there is Peace and we’ve been searching for it for 3 decades now with no luck.
- Thank you for sharing your story.
*Kufi script - one of the early arabic calligraphy writting styles. It is thought that Kufi was found in region of Kufa, Iraq. Kufi script is used in Qur’an, tombstones, coins, inscription on buildings. It is frequently used in the architecture due to it’s square nature, which is comfortable to use.