Monday 5 of December, 2022
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Absolut Warhol Art Exchange: Omar Mobarek X Chanel Arif

We bring together the two locally-based yet internationally-inspired artists over a few colourful cocktails and let them interview each other, celebrating the soon-to-be released, limited edition Absolut Warhol bottle...

Staff Writer

Continuing our collaboration with Absolut Vodka, celebrating the release of their much anticipated Andy Warhol-designed limited edition bottle, we bring together graphic artist and fashion designer Omar Mobarek with feminist Persian-Saudi-American artist Chanel Arif over a couple of cocktails. Here, they talk creativity, cats and coming to Cairo from California…

Omar: So what’s your deal?

Chanel: I’m Chanel. I’m Persian-Saudi-American. I was born in California, in the Bay Area, and then I moved to Egypt when I was 13, then I went to France and then I came back to Cairo.

Omar: No way! I was born in southern California, Orange County. I lived there until I was 17 before I moved to Seattle for university. I came back to Egypt in late 2010. When did you get into art?

Chanel: I’ve been drawing since I was little. Actually, when I was younger, I was obsessed with cats. My art teacher actually had a private meeting with my parents and she was like ‘Chanel is very good and everything but I’m afraid she’s going to receive a poor grade in my class she can’t stop drawing cats!’ I would draw cats constantly. Cats like humans, doing human things.

Omar: So you were destined to be a crazy cat lady!

Chanel: Yeah, and eventually this will happen, I’ve always known it!  So this is how I started drawing, and it was what I was good at. What about you?

Omar: I used to draw when I was younger but I didn’t know that until I grew up,  when my parents told me stories. But as I got older, my focus shifted to sports. I started a degree in architecture but wasn’t too focused on that either. I was young and just enjoying the college experience, to be honest, and when my family saw that I was having too much fun they brought me back to Egypt. When I came back, though, I didn’t know what to do, I went to AUC and I didn’t have anything to study, I wasn’t going to do architecture because I wasn’t super passionate about it and I always had an interest in lifestyle brands and t-shirts and designs and drawings, and I really knew I could go for art so that’s what I did. I majored in art and started drawing.

Chanel: I was supposed to major in art and I actually got accepted to Parsons in Paris. However, it wasn’t what I had imagined, and I couldn’t really afford it anymore so I transferred to the American University of Paris. My parents wanted me to study “something serious” so I got into psychology instead of illustration. Turns out you can’t do much with a psychology degree either so I’m still unemployed…Little did I know, psychology is up there with illustration.

Omar: You never know what’ll happen, though. The start of my brand UNTY was kind of random. Before I left Seattle, I was friends with this exchange student from Norway who was really into Hip-Hop and street culture, and got me into this TV show called How to Make it in America, about these guys who start a streetwear brand. I had never even thought about it until I watched the show and I was like this is awesome, I want to do exactly what they’re doing. So I came to Cairo and there were barely any local brands, so I just went for it.

Chanel: Yeah, like, how do you start out with something like that?

Omar: I had all these designs and I had the name, I designed the logo, everything was ready and it was just a matter of executing it, finding a factory, getting a cut with good quality, getting the print done. It was kind of a mess in the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error, especially when it came to printing because printing here is pretty terrible. It kind of started because I knew a lot of people who heard a lot about it so there was a lot of support in the beginning.

Chanel: That’s what is really cool about Cairo specifically. Despite how huge it is, the art community is very small and everyone knows each other almost, and you get prominence and attention because there’s no one else doing what you’re doing.

Omar: And they’re always down to work with each other. I’ve worked with so many different people with different things, we’ve made videos, music, installations;  they’re all down to work on anything, and no one’s really stuck up about it.

Chanel: Yeah, exactly, which is really cool. I was in New York for a while trying to succeed as an artist and it was just terrible, it was so tough, it ate me alive, it chewed me up and spat me out, it was so intense.

Omar: But you probably got a lot of experience and met a lot of really interesting people.

Chanel: Well, I’ve met a lot of interest people but a lot of people do the same thing. My biggest pet peeve when it comes to art and trying to make it is that people rely so heavily on Adobe Suite, electronic design and graphic. The handcraft is not paid attention to anymore, it’s not appreciated or marketed as much.

Omar: Have you ever thought about blending the two, like blending graphics with art? Because  I can see a lot of your work working really well with graphic work, and there are a lot of illustrations that you can add to with graphics. What’s your goal with your art?

Chanel: Eventually, I want to do what you do. I want to create a brand or a collective and produce things with my artwork. I want to start out with clothing and eventually furniture. I like that art as an industry is growing in Egypt.

Omar: I work part-time at Art Talks, a local gallery, doing in-house design so I work on catalogues, invitations and stuff like that. So I can make money from art and I’m being exposed to it as an industry more and more. It really depends on the people you know and, if you have a good network, you’ll get to know a curator who will get you out there. It’s like all these rapper’s stories, like Dr. Dre discovering Eminem. Eminem might’ve been just another rapper doing mixtapes and stuff, but if Dr. Dre hadn’t discover him, he wouldn’t have been one of the greatest rappers of all time. So, it’s kind of the same idea. Pop artists in 1970s New York went through the same processes too. There’s a reason Andy Warhol called his studio the Factory! Art is totally a business, and the experience evolves with that whole process of getting into the industry because you start being exposed to different things, your mind evolves and you’re getting that whole experience, it kind of inspires you and it completely changes your style of work.

Chanel: I definitely agree in terms of why it’s an industry, but I also think it’s an experience because art, especially image and colour, is a platform of empathy; it’s a landscape where you don’t have to abide by rules such as grammar. It’s very unfiltered and it’s a direct exchange between me, the projector and the other, the spectator. So I think that when you value that experience, that’s when art is really impactful… when it’s beyond just buying and selling.

Omar: When it comes to the experience, you’re absolutely right. You finish something and you want to put it out there. There’s a connection between you and the spectator constantly. Andy Warhol was great at that. How do you think he’s impacted today’s art scene?

Chanel: I think that he transformed the art scene in the fact that he paid attention to everyday objects and put them in a way where people can look at it and actually appreciate it. We’re constantly subjected to a lot of things, sensation-wise, but Campbell’s tomato soup, for example…That’s the most mundane object ever and now it’s iconic. It’s an everyday thing and he showed the beauty of it. I think in that way that we are aesthetic in this age and we appreciate simple things. Art doesn’t need to be a complete canvas. It can be a line drawing, it can be abstract…

Omar: How has Warhol inspired you?

Chanel: He inspired me with his use of colour. I really like his use of color, it’s very clash-y, you know… it’s not about being harmonic. I like the chaos of it all.

Omar: I’m more interested in his variety of work. He does illustrations and he does prints and he experimented with videos. He has a wide range of mediums. I think most artists before that focused on just one specific thing or just a couple while he covered the whole range of expression which was very inspiring. He’s worked with several artists, one of them being an icon of mine, Keith Haring, and most of the 70s artists that came out.

Chanel: Yeah, I like that too. I hate it when artists limit themselves to just one medium. I think it’s really cool when you explore every dimension and sense… Video, sound, texture, you know… everything.

Omar: Have you ever thought about working with video? If you look at your work and how that could be expressed in video, I think you’d come up with really cool dark and sick, twisted sort of fantasies.

Chanel: Yeah I want to do animation or incorporate animation montage with real life. Despite my work being quite dark sometimes, it’s good to have some fun.  I think you can just appreciate something purely on an aesthetic level. It doesn’t always have to convey a deeper meaning.

Omar: I think art can be taken for face value too. Sometimes it’s purely experimental. Like putting a pen to the paper and seeing what happens. Other times, it could be an expression of emotions. For me it’s phases. Some phases I’m really inspired to do something, like if I’m really down, or I just like found some different style to work with and I work with that.

Chanel: For me, I think that even if something is done for pure aesthetic value or because I like the colour or something, there’s definitely still a feeling behind it. There’s always some sort of emotion based on the harshness of the line or the boldness of the colours but it’s never an intentional “I’m trying to convey this, this, and that.” I want the receiver to experience that colour or that line the same way that I’m experiencing it. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. Other times I also have a narrative that I’m trying to tell.

Omar: Do you ever look back at stuff that you do and think about the type of person you were when you made it? Like the place you were in and how you think that reflected on your work contrary to what you’re doing now?

Chanel: Absolutely, they’re little parts of you.

Omar: Yeah, and you don’t see it then.

Chanel: Not at all. When I first started taking drawing really seriously, besides the cat thing, I was super Goth, like a rebel and all my drawings were three colors. Red, black, and white… that’s it. And they were all in one aesthetic and I never saw that. I thought I was like a well-rounded artist. Then slowly and slowly it started transitioning outwards, but I would never recognise that until now, when I look back on it.

Omar:  When I was in university, there were a lot of really small details in my work. When I look back, in my head everything was really complicated and I was always thinking about a million different things so I would have a lot of tiny details that people wouldn’t even see. And I didn’t understand why up until I really started to think about it.

Chanel: That’s really interesting. Are you influenced by other artists?

Omar: Like I said, Keith Haring is a big influence for me. Shepard Fairey too. A lot of musical artists as well, especially Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Ocean, alongside other brands. I love the way Quiksilver, for example, made their brand into a full lifestyle, from music to sports to fashion. That’s what I want to do with UNTY, create this lifestyle around it. Apart from cats, who influenced you? 

Chanel: Hahaha! My biggest influence was Erte. He was like the first costume designer that took it to the next level. He made a lot of beautiful dresses and illustrations and growing up, my mum loved him and she had his wok all over the house. I never realised it but a lot of my work looks like his because it was constantly around me. So my biggest inspirations are Erte, colour and the feminine figure. When it comes to the experiences that have shaped my artistic outlook, it’s understanding my cultural identity and my gender in the context of my surroundings. So in that way, when people ask me where I’m from and where I identify with, I’m always say Egypt even though I don’t speak Arabic, but I’m constantly uprooted and moved around a lot. I have this chaotic disharmony within myself about who I’m supposed to be  because I have this Middle Eastern upbringing but a cosmopolitan experience so understanding my sexuality in these spaces like and how I see  women is a big influence for me.

Omar: My experience is similar to yours; moving from place to place and not really identifying with any one culture. I’ve had a lot of awkward moments here… So many awkward moments because of exactly that! How would you describe my art?

Chanel: Hmmm, it’s very animalistic in a way. And very urban. What would you say about mine?

Omar: Your work has very strong contrasts. It’s dark and light at the same time. Calm and mad in equal measure.

Find Omar Mobarek's brand UNTY on Facebook here. See more of Chanel Arif's art here.

Photography by Jonathan Zikry.