Shepard Fairey, Street Artist and Manufacturer of Dissent, Opens Up About Dubai

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Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

“Pretty much my whole career was built upon bringing art to the people where they live.” - Shepard Fairey

He’s the provocative street artist who has been arrested 18 times, received hate mail because of his artwork, and who proudly calls himself a “member of dissent since 1989”. And as of today, he has finally landed in Dubai.

Shepard Fairey, of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame and responsible for such iconic works as Andre the Giant ‘OBEY’, the Obama ‘HOPE’ poster, and more recently, a series of female portraits entitled ‘We the People’ for the Women’s Day march protesting former president Donald Trump, is showing his work in the Middle East for the first time.

Future Mosaic will open at Dubai’s Opera Gallery on March 15th, and already the demand for his work has reached unprecedented levels, with collectors bidding for art well ahead of the opening.

“In terms of logistics, prestige, and overall excitement from the local market, Future Mosaic is probably the most important show that we’ve been planning,” says Sylvain Gaillard, Opera Gallery Director and curator of Fairey’s Dubai debut. “Since the show has been teased online, we’ve received unprecedented demand for collector’s preview, media requests, and RSVPs for the opening night. It’s one of those shows that truly appeals to a large audience, and we’re thrilled to feel the excitement around this.”

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

“Art has an incredible potential to affect people emotionally and intellectually and create conversations.” - Shepard Fairey

In addition to his show, Fairey is painting a bespoke mural for Dubai’s city landscape on two opposite walls in an undisclosed location ahead of the opening. Much like his controversial contemporary, Banksy, Fairey is an artist well-known for pushing boundaries, creating shocking images, and using his art to spread awareness of social justice, humanitarian issues, equal rights, anti-establishment, and environmental messages. So naturally, everyone wants to know the same thing: what message will Fairey be delivering to Dubai?

Originally, when Savoir Flair set out to interview Fairey, we wanted to ask him a series of rapid-fire questions about his first impressions of Dubai and where he liked to go to drink his coffee – or kombucha, as we weren’t sure which he favored – before we got into the nitty gritty. But since he was still in Los Angeles – my personal hometown – we started off by talking about where he got his coffee in LA (Fred 62) and where he liked to hang out (the Los Feliz/Echo Park area – a very artsy, hipster, and super trendy community of LA).

Maybe it was because of the LA connection, or more likely it is because Fairey is undoubtedly an artist through and through who isn’t scared of the real conversations about his work, but he jumped right into the tough topics without skipping a beat. Our conversation took an open and honest turn almost right away. We spoke with him about his work, his expectations and conceptions about the region, the pushback on social media he received when he announced his first show in the Middle East, U.S. politics, what messages he is bringing, and how he plans to get them across in Dubai. Even over Zoom, we were able to get an inside look, not just of his bookshelves and studio in the background, but of the inner workings of a man who truly is an artist of the people.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

“I use the inside-outside strategy. Because I had the courage to put my work out there, a lot of people have offered me ways to do things with multiple platforms, and in a sense, I have infiltrated the system. And sometimes people think that means that you will compromise, but I actually think if you are shrewd, you can use the machinery in a way that is not compromised, has integrity, and yet reaches more people.” - Shepard Fairey

What are you expecting Dubai to be like?
Well the descriptions have been wide ranging, so I’m not sure what to expect. I have flown into Dubai, so I know that the airport alone is quite impressive. I love architecture, and I’ve looked at a lot about the architecture. So I’m expecting a very modern, slick city mixed with a different cultural flavor. Whether it’s the mandala footprint of the tallest building in the world – which is a really cool connection to my work – or any of the other ways that design motifs and tradition intersect with a really modern city like I know Dubai is, I’m excited to see that fusion.

I pretty much go everywhere with an open mind. I find good people and good things literally everywhere I go. I’m skipping ahead here, but you know I read your questions, and to that last question about some of the negative commentary on my social media, I just look at that more as a reflection of the people that wrote it than a reflection of the place or of me. I consider myself a global citizen. I’m gonna go with an open mind. There are great people with beautiful, human dignity wherever I am, and whether they dress exactly the same or their primary religion is exactly the same, to me those are very superficial barriers to what gives people a true human connection.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

"Most of my work is about peace, harmony, respect for the environment, human rights, people treating each other well, you know, just common human decency – which isn’t common enough." - Shepard Fairey

What are you looking forward to seeing in Dubai?
Well, to visit the incredibly impressive tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. That thing is really beautiful architecturally, but also that humans made a structure that tall. I’m never gonna go to a place and have the opportunity to visit something like that and not do it. I’ve been doing a little bit of reading, and the way a lot of the different aspects of it were considered just seems like it would be worth seeing in person. It seems pretty fascinating. That’s like the one touristy thing that I wanna do.

Other than that, I want to let the locals take me to what they think I should see. People have ideas about LA. And when they come to LA and check out the Hollywood sign, I’m always like, “don’t do that stuff, you’ll be disappointed”. Hang with me and I’ll show you some really cool stuff that’s not as obvious. So that’s what I want to do in Dubai. Because I’m going to be very busy with the show and painting the murals, I don’t know how much time I’m going to have. But it’s always an exchange. I want to absorb things from a place, but I also want to leave a part of myself in a place.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

"Of course, I don’t want to alienate an audience with something that is inflammatory instantly, but I’m also not trying to pander and change my message for different places." - Shepard Fairey

You will be leaving a part of yourself! What is the positive piece of yourself you want to leave to Dubai?
There are several strands in the work. For work I am creating for the US, I might drill down on policy – things around wealth and equality, or any number of issues that are very specific to the American situation and that context. But then when you widen the lens, most of my work is about peace, harmony, respect for the environment, human rights, people treating each other well, you know, just common human decency – which isn’t common enough. So a lot of the work that I’m showing in Dubai is stuff that I think is pretty universal. There’s stuff around peace and harmony, mandalas. There are other things around peace that include weapons – that are both associated with western countries and weapons manufactured by Russia and China, but widely used in the Middle East. There’s something for a lot of different kinds of people.

What I’m doing is, I’m looking for stuff that I think has universal symbolism and that pretty much anybody would relate to. There’s some stuff around the need to transition off of fossil fuels and be respectful of the planet. Of course, I don’t want to alienate an audience with something that is inflammatory instantly, but I’m also not trying to pander and change my message for different places.

I’m making work about the need to move to sustainability – off of fossil fuels – in a lot of my work anyway. But in case somebody was unfamiliar, I wouldn’t want them to feel like they’re being geographically attacked. You know it’s this fine line of making sure that I’m putting the messages out that I want – and in a way that I feel loudly says what I believe in – but drawing an audience in rather than pushing them away – that tension between the power of provocation and the emotional seduction of the imagery. That’s sort of a lot of the work I think exists finding a balance between those zones.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

"I consider violence the last resort of the small-minded." – Shepard Fairey

Anything new?
There are several brand new paintings that I haven’t released – of images that I’ve already released as prints. Part of what I’m trying to do is always make sure that I’m reaching an audience accessibly, and so I make print versions of almost every art piece I make. Not all of them. There are several things in this show that have never been made in the same configuration as a print. But I’m sure that you’ll see some stuff you haven’t seen before in the show. But a lot of it is following those themes of human harmony, harmony with nature. Art is a source of empowerment, and creativity is something that solves problems and bridges cultural barriers. I consider violence the last resort of the small-minded. So there are some pieces that are dealing with that. You could say that it’s a collection of works that deals with all of those themes.

I’ve done portraits of Arab women as a way of trying to humanize and normalize wearing a head scarf or wearing a hijab.

Where I could make nods to things that I’ve seen graphically in the Middle East, that are inspirations that I’ve already woven into my work, of course, I used some of that. There’s a lot of patterning, and there’s a portrait of an Arab woman. I didn’t do that specifically for this show. I did that before because there is so much Islamophobia in the United States. I’ve done portraits of Arab women as a way of trying to humanize and normalize wearing a head scarf or wearing a hijab. I think art is one of the ways you can ease people into an idea. It’s trojan horsing past walls of bad ideas.

There are so many different ways in which I’m exploring these principles, I could go on for a long time, but it’s better to see it.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

"I think art is one of the ways you can ease people into an idea. It’s trojan horsing past walls of bad ideas." - Shepard Fairey 

What are some of the Arab influences, inspirations, or artists that you draw from?
There is an Arab artist named eL Seed whose work I really like. His work is really great. There’s an artist who is living in LA now named Marwan Shahin. He’s from Egypt. He created the King Tut with the Guy Fawkes mask for the Arab Spring. I really like his work a lot as well. I have several books of Middle Eastern artists, but a lot of the names aren’t easy for me to remember, but there are tons of great work. The way in which the style of Arabic calligraphy has come into the mark-making of a lot of the artists – it’s even influenced American artists like RETNA. He has a multilingual calligraphy thing going on in his work, and Arabic is a big thing. Normally, it’s a very west-centric thing in art, but to see the influence going the other way is pretty exciting. I wanna see stuff first hand that I’m going to be inspired by.

I wonder how being here will influence you in the future?
I’m very omnivorous when it comes to influences, so sometimes a place really influences me, but people don’t even notice it significantly in the aesthetics of the work. When I went to Hong Kong, seeing all the textures on the surfaces, the ripped posters, and a lot of the things going on with the old neon, it made me go deeper on the layers in my work. But somebody wouldn’t necessarily look at it and go, “that’s Hong Kong in your work.”

There’s the aesthetic ways that places influence me, but really, what I’m most excited about, is I have to listen to all these nitwits generalizing about places in the world, and it deeply offends me. But I don’t feel like I’ve got true authority to comment on it because I haven’t been to a place. And obviously, me going to Dubai is not going to give me the authority to speak on the culture of Saudi Arabia or of Egypt or of Israel. I understand the Middle East is far from monolithic. But every trip to a region where I get first-hand experience, gives me a little bit more confidence and knowledge. Knowledge is really important when you are an artist making imagery about what’s going on in the world. So many Americans don’t even have a passport. It’s really sad. U.S. politics would look very different if most of the country traveled.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of Shepard Fairey

"Art is a source of empowerment, and creativity is something that solves problems and bridges cultural barriers." – Shepard Fairey

I have American friends here who use your ‘We the People’ image – the woman in the American flag hijab – as their Facebook profile because they feel seen through that image.
It’s unfortunate. I think it’s great when something like the ‘We the People’ images seem to resonate. We got tons of hate mail. The idea that you would portray someone in a hijab is for some very ignorant people seen as you endorsing jihad or something. It’s that narrow-minded. Americans are really reactionary about a lot of stuff. I have a group of friends who are really enlightened and lovely, but I don’t think they represent the majority of America.

And so what I’m trying to do is not just sit there and criticize those people, but try to make imagery that maybe brings them into a conversation that shifts their perspective. And if the ‘We the People’ image achieved a little bit of that, then that’s a great thing. My most-liked Instagram post ever was the women members of Congress who were analogous to the ‘We the People’ images. It was sort of like here’s art, and here’s the manifestation of that idea in the real world. And people seeing that was really exciting to them to feel like – especially when the Trump years were so, so dark [laughing] – this was a hopeful symbol.

Shepard Fairey Dubai
Photo: Courtesy of @obeygiant

"You know it's this fine line of making sure that I’m putting the messages out that I want – and in a way that I feel loudly says what I believe in – but drawing an audience in rather than pushing them away – that tension between the power of provocation and the emotional seduction of the imagery." - Shepard Fairey

It was moving to see how far we’ve come and how art does impact our culture and has a way of bridging things. We need to see more of that bridging between East and West.
My thing is I want to say what I want to say, but I don’t want to accidentally be disrespectful and push people away before I even have  a chance to initiate a conversation. And that might sound slightly contradictory, because I’ve been arrested 18 times and been such a rebel with my art, but it was always with the intention of shaking up the status quo because the status quo had become numb to injustice. Not about just offending people for the sake of being a rebel. I think you probably get that with my art. That’s important to me. I stand up for what’s right, but I’m not just agitating people for the sake of it.

One last question. Are you going to be leaving any OBEY stickers around?
[Chuckling] You know, I’ve been warned that it’s a very clean city, and that people – maybe not all people – but some people really frown on those types of mischievous transgressions. But I, obviously, will be sharing stickers with people, and where those people feel they should end up is up to them. I feel really grateful that I have a sanctioned mural spot with two really large walls. And I know that that is going to connect with people in a very democratic venue. There will be people that seek it out, and there will be people who stumble upon it. And that’s what the aim of my work is.

I love the mischief of bucking the system and doing some stuff without permission. But really, that is the only outlet I had to connect in an unmediated way with my audience initially. Now, I have a lot of other ways of doing that. Democratizing art, making art accessible, making people think about the power of expression versus just government signage or commercial imagery. That’s what I was trying to do, and I still am. But luckily, I have a lot more ways to do that now. I will be feeling it out when I’m there. That’s really all I can say.

Oh! You asked about coffee. Yes, I’m a coffee drinker. I don’t know what my favorite coffee place is yet, but I’m gonna hedge my bets that it’s going to be Seven Fortunes, because they’re doing a promo for the show on their coffee cups. Hopefully I love their coffee. We’ll see. 

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