Kareem El Arab is a Lebanese multi-media artist and screenwriter currently living in Texas, primarily working in the digital realm to create his chaotic and often nostalgic collages. This is LOS GATOS in conversation with Kareem El Arab on his series Digital Diaspora, nostalgia, and Lebanese pop culture.
LOS GATOS: Your work can be seen as comedic and satirical, sometimes even political, would you agree with this statement?
KAREEM ELARAB: I'd agree with that statement to an extent. I don't really have a motive whenever I make art, the purpose my art serves is enjoyment and pleasure in a way that would hopefully implore people to take a second look. Sometimes I would create work that holds a lot of weight, but it wouldn’t be my intention to do so. I focus mostly on being more camp than serious, fusing irony and satire with everything I do.
GATOS: Looking at this series, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia that’s strongly tied to Arab culture and Arab pop culture, where is this nostalgia driven from?
ELARAB: This little series I did stemmed from an essay I was writing about queerness in Arab film, and researching LGBT+ representation in past Arab cinema. Obviously, there was barely any representation - but there was queerness trickled throughout, whether it be subliminal or negative, it was there and through this research, I became fascinated with Arab icons. Being westernized growing up, it was easy for me to lose touch of my roots so I felt the need to take a step back and explore this space that I’ve neglected for so long. During the process of looking through picture books of Beirut in the 1950s, vintage movie posters, album covers and magazines, I became mesmerized by the colors, the glamour and the elegance of the Arab World during that period which strings along with it a strong sense of nostalgia of a society that once was, and all that’s left of it is recollections.
GATOS: What could be said about Lebanese culture in relation to your work?
ELARAB: I've always felt like a bit of an outsider in Lebanon. I'm fully Lebanese yet I emulate myself as merely a spectator. I'm familiar with my culture but I still enjoy analyzing the social culture in the Middle East, Lebanon specifically. As a screenwriter I have always channeled the social atmosphere in Lebanon with a lot of my characters. We’re emotional, loyal, hot headed, dramatic and stubborn, and it's great. I'm inspired by the day-to-day interactions people have on the street, at the grocery store, with their friends and with their extended family. The architecture of the Arab world, the creative minds behind fashion in the Middle East, the stories my mom tells me when she was a child running around in the mountains, the passion behind the politics, the generous cuisine, the behavioral practices and even the struggles and coping mechanisms, all inspire me daily. The queer artists the come out of the Middle East inspire me, the family orientation inspires me.
GATOS: What other sources of inspiration, themes or concepts can you discuss when its comes to this series?
ELARAB: The first image I found was from a website that was basically a bin of Lebanese vintage pics. There was one that particularly caught my eye, it was of Raouche. Later on I started looking at book covers, and started thinking about those Animorphs books, where each cover shows a teenager slowly turning into some animal. I thought they were hilarious and thought I could pay homage to that by photoshopping multiple faces in the sky like a mirage. I was trying to also pay reference to Arab soap opera openings, because they're always so long and they are FILLED with overlays.
My other images are basically a collage of old Arab movie posters that I thought were gorgeous and inspired me to make a "mood board" of it. I found Arabic posters for the movies Birdman and Nightcrawler and then dug those up and was inspired by how everything looks painted. All these movie posters look like they were painted, no photographs just paint. At that point, I would start adding my selfies, and morphing my eyebrow, eyes and glasses onto that actor's face. In the upper left I photoshopped a selfie I took for my mom to prove to her I'm wearing a mask and gloves when I was grocery shopping in New York. And the collage of the old Sabah album cover that I had no idea what to do with, I just destroyed it, I felt frustrated and chaotic but I still wanted to keep the essence of the album cover, I wanted it to look as if Sabah made an experimental remix album that was never discovered. I think that particular collage inspired by Grimes and her album covers, they're always really structured and have this unique template that's thought out.
"This series is just me editing pictures into oblivion like I always do, but with my Arab roots tied around it to be a visual backdrop and an homage to the times my parents grew up in."
All images courtesy the artist.