Hussam Reda has taken his art from the US to Germany, from Egypt to the UAE, and found fame online. We discuss the Arab world, heritage and Kanye West with him to find out who's more about the man who calls himself the Unemployed Pharaoh.
With his bold graphics, his unique eye for colour and a penchant for Pop culture, Hussam Reda, AKA the Unemployed Pharaoh, is an online sensation. And he's also pretty famous #IRL. The young-up-and-coming Egyptian artist has lived all over the world but is now based in the UAE, still drawing and colouring away at his awesome art which ranges from portraits of Rihanna to mash-ups of Arab culture and hipster triangles to the occasional graffiti on the streets. The Tumblr star has exhibited in Germany, Egypt, the US and the UAE and continues to turn heads. The only way is up for the 22-year old creative...
You were born in the United States to Egyptian parents: how did Egypt influence you growing up away from "home"?
Growing up, the term "home" wasn't really in my dictionary due to the fact that I lived in 20 different ones. Until the 6th grade I had lived in about five different homes already, I lost a lot of friends along the way, but worst of all, I did not know anything about my own culture and hardly spoke any Arabic. So when I was 13 my parents decided I needed to embrace my heritage and return to the Middle East. I made a ton of friends at school and began to realise that i wasn't the only one with a weird background.
What made you an artist?
Egyptian parents only want their kids to be doctors, lawyers or architects, so due to the fact that I can't keep a book open for more than two hours, I decided architecture was the right path because I was into drawing and sketching ever since I could hold a pencil. Of course after an entire year of studying I realised it's nothing like what I imagined. Telling your Egyptian parents you want to be an artist is like telling them you want to be a drug dealer. I convinced them with a sketch I made of my dad and look at me now, a graduate of Florida State College in Digital Media and Graphic Design!
How was your art influenced by coming to Egypt for the first time?
Traveling makes you discover places and emotions in yourself that you didn't know were there. Being in Egypt made me love the simple life a whole lot more and to make the best out of every moment. I personally believe Egypt is the country with the most laughter in the whole world. It’s not just sand and camels; when coming to Egypt you realise how kind-hearted everyone there is and that influenced my art in a lot of ways. Of course that had an effect on my work.
What's the story behind your artist name?
Many people think the name "Unemployed Pharaoh" means that I’m an artist looking for a job, but it's actually quite the opposite. I chose that name because I didn't want anything to do with design firms and companies, because once you start working for someone then you're just a tool in their box. I want to be the whole box so to speak. I enjoy being free and sketching and producing whatever comes to mind, not what my manager throws at my desk. I’m nobody’s tool but my own.
Why did you return to the Middle East?
Until January 2015 I had different plans but then I got a call: my dad and a Sheikh were opening a restaurant in the UAE and wanted me to help with designing the whole place and the marketing side. Dubai really tempted me: the city with the strongest, tallest and biggest everything. I believed that it wouldn’t be possible to get bored there and I was right. I've been living here happily ever since.
What influence does Egypt have on you today?
No matter what country I go to, I always want to go back to Egypt for a reason I can't even really explain. It's just this feeling you get while you're there. I know some people in Egypt right now are trying to leave it but try leaving for a year and see how you feel. I don't care if the traffic is always a mess or that there's people riding a horse on the highway. All the spelling mistakes in the whole country put together could make me change my mind.
What was the response in Egypt to your work?
I've exhibited and lived in Egypt for about four years all together, not counting the summer trips to Alexandria, but I think my work attracts more galleries and curators of the Western world like Germany, Canada, Australia and Brazil.
Where do you personally draw inspiration from?
I get inspired by movies because they make one believe anything is possible. Another source of inspiration of course would be music, books and last but not least, the fashion world. One of my biggest idols is Steve Madden who used to sell shoes in the trunk of his car and now he has over 100 stores worldwide. Giorgio Armani and Christian Dior who pretty much changed the way women dress entirely. Tom Ford, LaureLuxe, McQueen and Coco Chanel are also up there.
Please explain the story behind that picture of the finger.
The finger was a piece for a diary in Hamburg, Germany called Values Trend. I was asked to make something about politicians who use a peace sign but after they're elected the message of peace is lost. Someone posted it on Tumblr and it ended up being one of the most re-blogged artworks on Tumblr with over 87,000 re-blogs so it's one of my proudest pieces.
What possesses an artist to choose Kanye as the subject of an artwork?
Kanye is unique, even if people don’t like him. I think there are many layers to him but in the end he’s an artist not afraid to express himself and I appreciate that. I like depicting celebrities who are unique. Whether it’s their style, or the message behind their work, they're just weird in their own way. I love that. I like weird people.
We noticed you like depicting people of African-American descent: is there a reason?
I think it was actually more of a coincidence than intentional. One of my idols who I did a piece on is Martin Luther King Jr who I didn't pick because he was African-American but rather because of how much he influenced the world. These days if you're African-American in the US it is very hard for you to make it due to media scrutiny and racism. But yeah, African-Americans are some of the strongest people in this world.
What is your personal style in your artwork in five words or less?
Trendy yet strange.
What advice would you give artists in Egypt?
Go camping in the desert for a few days without your laptop, phone or any source of communication. Being in the open with nothing but the sand and mountains and a bonfire will give you time with your thoughts and give you new ideas and hopefully inspire you in many ways. Don't be afraid to express yourself. Don't worry what society will say about you as long as your not hurting anyone; do what you love and express your thoughts and yourself freely like no one is watching.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m writing a book about how life is different for multicultural people and maybe I can turn it into an independent film or documentary. Eventually I want to fulfil my life-long dream of moving to Germany before I settle down in Egypt and get married.
What's your favourite colour?
See more of Unemployed Pharaoh's work on his Behance here or follow him on Instagram @HussamReda