28-year-old Lebanese artist Ali Cha’aban didn’t always want to be an artist. But the events that unfolded during Lebanon’s tragic 2006 war urged him to use his interest in art—across varying mediums—to create a dialogue about social and political issues: “It progressively evolved into wanting to become a story-teller”, says Cha’aban.
Cha’aban started creating art in early 2008, where he exhibted pop art-inspired graffiti in a construction sight in Kuwait. His art really became politically engaged upon seeing the 2013 Coup d’Etat in Egypt, when he witnessed masses of people (in the millions) come together and unite for one cause.
His latest endeavour is a collaboration with sportswear giant Nike. We caught up with Cha’aban to find out how the shoe – which is the prize for runners who complete a running challenge in Ramadan called “Dusk to Dawn” – came about and how his culture inspires his work.
How did your upbringing and cultural background influence you as an artist?
There is a strong current of nostalgia that runs through my work, but its significance is still vague. It is a reflection of a longing for the innocence of childhood and the simplicity of the pre-digital age, or a form of escapism from the current socio-political problems. To question the idea that the Arab identity as a whole is shattered is a hyperbole. That emotion started springing within me around the start of the Arab Spring. Seeing all these insurgencies and civil wars occur made me feel nostalgic towards a peace that never materialized. I believe that unity between the masses does not exist or is slowly fading through factions whether religious or ideological.
What is the story behind your “Dusk to Dawn” shoes in collaboration with Nike?
When Nike approached me to customize a pair of Nike Epic React, they had this idea of creating a new essence to running in the Arab world. The busy streets of Hamra -a neighbourhood of Beirut – and more particularly, its tight alleyways inspired my concept. The emblematic ‘No Parking’ road signs are embroidered on the shoe. In Arabic, ‘No Parking’ translates to ‘Don’t Stop’. Capitalizing on exercising in Ramadan is a big step towards educating the culture to be more active.
What role do you think art should play in our lives?
Through art, I want to awaken feelings of “Hiraeth”, which means nostalgia. For instance, a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return to, or a home which maybe never was – the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
To me art is a means of social-commentary to highlight an issue or shed a light on a subject matter. It’s a means of communication for an artist to address a concern and generate awareness. My work revolves around the notion of nostalgia, which I depict in my art, tackling socio-political issues such as the Arabian identity and the state of dystopia.