Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

Meet the Kuwaiti artist visualizing the frustration of telework during the pandemic

Mohammad Sharaf humorously captures our new normal.

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By Vittoria Volgare Detaille

Kuwaiti graphic designer and artist Mohammad Sharaf. Image: Instagram.

Kuwaiti graphic designer Mohammad Sharaf often reacts to events happening in his country and around the world by creating visual art. Most recently, Mohammad has transformed the latest global health crisis and the consequent lockdown into an artistic opportunity to convey his point of view and initiate a conversation. As usual, he did it with his bold and singular entertaining style.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people around the world were forced into physical distancing. Kuwaitis were not spared and they were imposed a partial curfew starting from March 22. From 10 until 30 May a total curfew saw people confined to their homes. This meant that telework became the new norm.

The artist himself, who owns a graphic design studio in Kuwait City, was trying to work from home but was struggling to stay productive without getting distracted by house chores or other tasks, he tells me.

“Before Covid-19 I would wake up, get my coffee, and go to the office. This was my typical [working] day. I didn’t even spend half an hour at home in the morning before going to the office… But now I wake up, I have to make breakfast, I sit around and I already wasted like two hours. And then it’s already 10 am. I work for half an hour and then get distracted and it’s done for the day.”

So he thought of ways to visually translate this frustration of working from home, the pressure of being productive, and multitasking in one perfect picture people could relate to. He also wanted the image to be light-hearted, like the majority of his work.

On 6 April he posted a picture of himself on Instagram with the caption Working From Home No.1. In the image, he appears sitting in bed drinking coffee, in a serious pose, while watching the screen of his laptop, dressed-up in a white dishdasha (the traditional ankle-length garment used by men in the Gulf region, also as a formal business attire).

The photo immediately received an outpour of support from his followers. “I think it was because of the whole funny combination,” Mohammad explains.

In the subsequent weeks, he posted six more auto-portraits. In Deadlines, Working From Home No.2, he tries to “make fun of ads of the Fifties with women holding a vacuum cleaner and a book or a kid at the same time, and they’re trying to do everything and are happy about it… If you look at these photos, you can just laugh with them or you can look deeper and understand certain things that I’m trying to say.”

This is when people started recreating their own version of the photo, depending on their background and country of origin, and adding the hashtag #workingfromhome.

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“Deadlines” Working From Home No.2

A post shared by Mohammad Sharaf | ???? ??? (@mohammadrsharaf) on

“I think people liked it because they can relate. They wanted to ease the pressure on themselves, of doing work and being productive. Everyone was doing it their own way. For example, I used a cheap vacuum cleaner while others used a very expensive one. Some people would dress up while others would dress informally. And it varies from country to country. Someone in Iran is different from someone from the States or Lebanon or the Emirates. Everyone is looking at it in a different way based on their culture and their personal point of view,” Mohammad explains.

The path to the art of graphic design

The photographic series about working from home was Mohammad’s way to vent about the consequences of the pandemic in an artistic way. Although he enjoys photography and he considers it a “playground”, this is not his main medium.

Mohammed, 39 years old, mostly uses graphic design, typography and calligraphy to create art.

Born and raised in Kuwait, he grew up in an artistic environment. “My father was a fine artist and I think this is one of the major reasons why I got into art.” At seven years old, Mohammad looked up to his father’s work and showed artistic talent himself. The elder Sharaf took pride in his son’s drawings, but he didn’t want him to be focusing only on art.

As a ten-year-old pupil in school, Mohammad discovered Arabic calligraphy, while at 14 he became passionate about graphic design through educational workshops. In his teenage years, he started working part-time as a graphic designer.

Mohammad would have loved to continue studying this art form but at the time Kuwait University did not offer any courses. “So I said ‘What’s the next closest thing to graphic design and advertising that I could study?’ And I did marketing,” Mohammad recalls.

After graduating in 2004 he kept freelancing as a graphic designer and self-taught himself until 2009, when the then newly established American University of Kuwait opened an art and draphic design department. He enrolled and got his second degree in 2011. Two years later, he took his passion to the next level and went to the United States to follow a Masters in Fine Arts and Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

After studying and working full time in New York for five years he returned to Kuwait in 2018 to establish Sharaf Studio, where he creates “visual identities, editorials, campaigns and everything related to design.” He often partners up with NGOs to do social good as well.

Humour as a tool to grab attention

If the elder Sharaf was Mohammad’s first inspiration, various artists, designers, writers, friends and people on social media have also stimulated his artistic and design work over the years.

Already fascinated by communist propaganda posters from all over the world, it was Iranian designer Reza Abedini that drew his particular attention to typography and poster design. The simple yet strong work of pioneer American graphic designer Paul Rand also appeals to him. He strongly relates to surrealist Belgian painter Rene Magritte as well.

Mohammad applies his graphic design skills to his art. In 2010, he began creating posters with simple images to convey a serious message with satire and humor. “I grew up in Kuwait where humor is really embedded in our community. And you see it through visual and performative arts, especially in TV shows and plays,” he tells me.

Most of Mohammad’s work is published on social media, so he feels the need to use humor to quickly grab the attention of the viewer. “I think the combination of these serious issues with silly things helps me deliver my point of view through my work.”

Visual reactions to events happening in the world

From left to right, This is how it goes, Allowed, and Untitled. Images: Visual Reactions Tumblr.

His first poster This is how it goes (2010), part of a college project, was a commentary on Kuwaiti social behavior. “It’s about how people talk about politics without having enough knowledge or without considering what’s right and what’s wrong,” Mohammad says.

This set the tone for Visual Reactions, a series of posters reacting to events happening in the Middle East.  “The themes are mainly social and political issues. They could be silly things but also very serious issues.” The dozens of posters he has created over the past ten years tackle different  timely topics. They are digital and Mohammad posts them on social media. Afterwards, they appear in different mediums like silk screen posters or art installations.

Some of the posters went viral. Allowed was a reaction to a 2013 Saudi law allowing women to ride bicycles for leisure if accompanied by a male relative. The simple black, white and red image was a pivotal artwork in his career as it was widely reshared online and on regional and international media outlets.  The poster shows a woman in a black abaya riding a bicycle with her male guardian standing behind her in a small basket.

In November 2018 he created The Cemetery of Banned Books, a massive installation that responded to the Kuwaiti government’s ban of more than 4,300 books since 2013.The artwork was installed on an empty plot of land beside Kuwait’s Annual Book Fair. The installation consisted of 200 headstones on which Mohammad written in red the names of banned books with the ‘symbolic date of burial’. The installation lasted three hours before it was removed. Like Allowed, Cemetery of Banned books grabbed local and international attention. In November 2019 Mohammed partially reconstructed the original installation that was on display at Kuwaiti gallery Contemporary Art Platform (CAP) for more than one month.

The only reason I’m doing this work is that I want to express my point of view. Eventually, I would also love to make people aware of what I’m trying to say, but this is a plus… I’m doing it for us, for my community.”

Vittoria Volgare Detaille is a freelance journalist and translator. After having studied Arabic Literature at the University of Napoli “L’Orientale”, she collaborated with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and with the Italian Press Agency ANSA. She has lived for more than 10 years in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya and Kuwait) and is currently based in Singapore.

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