TAKING ELEMENTS OF MIDDLE EASTERN CULTURE AND ISLAMIC ART TO CREATE CONTEMPORARY AND COLOURFUL ARTWORKS, DUBAI-BASED ARTIST ZAHRAA AL-SAFFAR BRINGS CREATIVITY, QUIRK AND REAL TALENT TO THE CANVAS. HERE, SHE TALKS TO SHABANA ADAM ABOUT HER INSPIRATIONS, TECHNIQUES AND WHY THE UAE IS A GREAT PLACE FOR ARTISTS TO LIVE.
Zahraa Al-Saffar’s love of art was first ignited on a trip to Barcelona. Like many who visit the stunning Spanish city, she was in awe of the incredible architectural works by Gaudi. So much so that his infamous Sagrada Familia went on to inspire Zahraa’s theme for a practice GCSE Art Project. “I chose Catalan Modernism and painted the Sagrada Familila whilst also incorporating the use of mosaics,” she recalls. “I definitely wouldn’t say it was a masterpiece. But, being given the freedom to run with my own ideas and not follow any rules was a game changer for me and that’s when I really grew to love creating art.” It’s in that very sentiment that Zahraa’s interest and passion for producing art comes alive. She’s captivated by Arabic and Islamic art – Iraqi in particular. “I love the strong use of colour, the intrinsic patterns and the use of characters to tell a story,” Zahraa explains. “I take a lot of inspiration from Iraqi Artists like Muayad Muhsin and Wassma Al-Agha.”
From the sounds of things, you might be deceived into believing that Zahraa is a full-fledged, round the clock artist – this is not the case. When we discovered her work through our favourite way of searching for hidden local talents – instagram hashtags (of course!), Zahraa humbly admitted that she’s always looked at art as a personal love and hobby – as something alongside her day job that gives her fulfillment as a creative outlet. She also hadn’t shared a lot of her pieces on social media – just with family and friends. In fact, when we (very quickly) decided to feature Zahraa as the arts interview for our annual Ramadan issue, we learned that this talented lady is still spotlight shy when it comes to showcasing a lot of her work. Well, let’s crack that shell!
For someone viewing Zahraa’s work for the first time, you’ll see that her pieces embody contemporary visuals, lots of colour and are open for interpretation. “With the exception of a few of my pieces, I like to think that most of my work has emotional undertones,” Zahraa shares. “I love painting characters with their eyes closed and letting the viewer decide the feeling themselves. Are her eyes closed because she’s sad? Thoughtful? In love? You choose. “I’ve had my friends look at my work and argue between themselves on how the characters in my paintings are feeling. My answer is always the same – it’s subjective,” she adds.
Many artists, both in a professional capacity and those who paint for fun or as a pastime, may refer to cultural references or at least a specific idea, person, tradition – anything–as their muse.We’re intrigued to learn about the different social influences in Zahraa’s work. She tells us: “My work is full of Middle Eastern cultural elements. From the ladies draped in the traditional abaya from head to toe, to the jewellery and use of colour – a lot of my friends joke about the the “voluptuous female form” and I incorporate this into a lot of my pieces – again, that all goes back to how a fuller figure is celebrated in the Arabic culture. I also paint a lot of palm trees, dates, and domes, and love to experiment with calligraphy,” she smiles Zahraa paints with acrylics because she loves the thick, textured brush strokes on a canvas. A lot of the time, she takes it further and thickens the paint with a medium, something that will allow her audience to really see and feel the texture of the paint. In terms of tools, aside from bushes, she also uses sponge, paint knives and what she calls the “most magical tool” – her fingers
“There are so many different ways you can use your hands to blend, smudge and create interesting patterns and I love experimenting with my fingers,”she says.“I’d say most of my paintings have involved an element of finger work. Even my charcoal and pencil pieces heavily rely on blending using my hands to get the effect of shadows and shades.” Zahraa instinctively gravitates towards brighter colours, and when she’s looking for inspiration, she finds herself searching for Arabic and Islamic history and traditions. “With everything that’s going on in the world today, I like to think that my work brings a sense of positivity and optimism by combining the two,” she says. Living in Dubai, Zahraa is surrounded by a wealth of artistic knowledge, talent and events. She believes the UAE is definitely a place with great opportunities for the creative community.
“It seems like there’s an art event or festival every week – I love it,” she exclaims. “There are so many opportunities here for artists and I definitely think the UAE is championing artistic talents in a huge way at the moment. In addition to the galleries and artistic hubs like DIFC and Al Serkal Avenue, there are countless cafés, hotels and restaurants that allow artists to showcase their pieces and I love how budding artists’ works are increasingly being used to shape the décor for all these wonderful venues,” Zahraa says. “In my opinion, there’s no better way to decorate.” Probably one of the most challenging things to encounter as an artist is knowing when to stop, when to put down the brush or the pencil and say “it’s done” – what’s this process like for Zahraa?
“That’s a tough one,” she admits. “A while ago I finished one of my pieces, hung it up on the wall and then six months later I took it down and added a few elements to it before hanging it back up. I think it’s done now, but ask me again in six months – you never know! “When I get immersed in a project, I’ll often dream of the brush strokes and colours I’m using then wake up with a new idea or direction to take the piece,” Zahraa explains. “I always give myself that window for a few months at least before I officially declare a piece as ready to add to my website.” The ultimate dream for Zahraa is for her art to become such a priority where she could leave her day job and unleash the creativity full time. Her most important piece of advice for young budding artists is “consistence is key” – even if you only paint for your own pleasure, Zahraa encourages you to keep at it as that’s how you improve. She says: “Go to art galleries, get inspired, get out of your comfort zone and don’t be hard on yourself – the beauty of art is that there are no rules.” On that note, look out for the name Zahraa Al-Saffar at an exhibition near you
GO: Follow Zahraa Al-Saffar on instagram @zahraadxb for more information.