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Shalemar Sharbatly: Art is a Source of Soft Power

by Yasmine El-Geressi

Born in Cairo in 1972 to an Egyptian mother and a Saudi father, Shalemar Sharbatly is an accomplished painter who burst onto the scene aged 13 when her artwork was published in the prestigious Egyptian arts and culture magazine “Sabah Al Kheir.” At 15, Shalemar was the youngest female painter in the Arab world to have a solo art exhibition. She was embraced by Egypt’s greatest painters, artists and poets including Farouk Jwaideh, Salah Taher and Louis Gireiss. Shalemar then took part in art exhibitions in Jeddah where her paintings were displayed alongside renowned regional and international artists such as Abel Halim Radwa and Omar Al Najdy.

Shalemar has become an internationally celebrated painter. She has won numerous prizes and held exhibitions and shows in some of the world’s finest art galleries and institutions. She introduced the art world to a new concept called “Moving Art,” an initiative intended to move art beyond the elitist walls of the gallery. As part of this movement Shalemar created a fashion line inspired by her works of art and has hand-painted several cars including ED Design’s Torq and a Porche which was displayed at her most recent exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris.

Can you tell us about your latest exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris?

This exhibition was different from my previous exhibitions at the Louvre because the Porche I hand painted was displayed at the entrance of the museum. This was also the first ever time an artistically designed car was displayed in the museum.

I collaborated with the Italy-based company Ed Design to paint the Torq car. The car was previously displayed at the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix and in the main hall of Hotel Negresco in Nice. Artwork that I created inspired by the Torq and a miniature replica of the car were also displayed at the Louvre to promote the car and “Moving Art”. The executive director of the Louvre was present at the opening of the exhibition. The Louvre embraces the world’s greatest artists and its the ultimate dream of every artist. I am happy that we, as Arabs abroad, serve as Ambassadors of our countries and can deliver our message to the world.

What inspired you to begin using cars as your canvas?

When I walk through the streets and find myself surrounded by so much aluminium I feel annoyed. I began feeling like this in 2006. Cars are all either red, white, green or black and you are forced to buy cars in only these colours. I thought to myself, how can I paint my own car? There are two problems which arise when you paint a car. The first is figuring out what paint to use because you can’t use the same type of paint that you would when painting on a canvas. The paint you use has to be in accordance with international standards and be tough and resilient. In 2013, I was in Jeddah with my brother Majed who owns several car dealerships and I shared my idea with him and asked him I could turn it into reality. He told me that the only solution is to use Duco to paint which dries within 3 seconds, and then to bake the car. I told my brother that I wanted a small Porche and I thought for a while about how I could work with this very thick, quick-drying paint until one day, I was with my friend Abeer and I asked her to come down to the workshop with me. I started playing Fatet Gambina by Abdelhalim Hafez, I put my trust in God and I began to work. Of course, the smell was terrible. I went into battle with the colours which in my imagination had transformed into army soldiers. Majed told me to be careful because if I were to make any mistakes while painting the car would have to be sent back to be fixed -but thank God I never had to do that. It took me about 10 to 15 days to complete. The Porche 911 Carrera was the first ever art car to be displayed in the history the French Motor Show in 2014 and it became one of the most viewed cars in the world.

Shalemar Sharbatly’s hand painted Porche displayed at the Louvre Museum

Can you explain the synergies between the car and art worlds?

When I see cars painted in one solid colour I get this aluminum feeling inside me, I feel like I am walking amongst metal. I hate this feeling. Cars are big blank canvases. Why not exploit this space by transforming it into visual culture and use it to spread joy? Of course there is a close relationship between the car and art worlds. Any blank object or furniture can be exploited in the same way instead of being surrounded by so much frightening white space. God is the greatest artist and he did not create the world in black and white, he created a world of beautiful colours.

You have explained that “Moving Art” is an initiative intended to move art beyond the elitist walls of the gallery. Can you expand upon that idea?

When the first thing you see when you open your eyes in the morning is beautiful, it changes something inside you in a beautiful way. We should all enjoy beautiful things. This concept should be applied to cars, fashion, porcelain, and even buildings because colour is life and God almighty coloured the world in shades and tones that no artist in the world can replicate.

Shalemar Sharbatly (3rd L) poses with her mother (4th L) and friends with a miniature replica of the “Torq” at the Louvre Museum

How did your artistic journey begin?

My mother is a Fine Arts graduate and so I was born into art. I opened my eyes inside an art gallery and to the voices of Abdel Halem Hafez, Fairouz and Julio Iglesias. I used to hate playing with dolls and would spend my time drawing instead. I think that I had a different upbringing to most children. It is important that mothers support their children to tap into their talents so that they can emerge and blossom because talent needs to be nurtured at a young age. I began drawing at age 3 and I still have artworks that I created when I was 3 and 4 years old. I did very well at school and obtained a Masters in Criminology in Lebanon.

When I was 13 years old, I approached the Egyptian artist Abdel’aal, who at the time worked for Sabah Elkheir magazine, I showed him my paintings and he embraced me. I am thankful that God gave me a wise and educated mother and surrounded me with respectable people. Luck plays a role here. The editor in chief of the magazine saw my work and said we must interview you. At 15, I started creating artwork for the back cover of the magazine.

I used to include Farouk Jwaideh’s poems in my paintings so I approached him and I asked him what he thought about my work. He told me that I must showcase my art in an exhibition. He introduced me to the painter Salah Taher who thought my work was great and they both set up the exhibition. I was the first Saudi artist to have an exhibition in Egypt following a long period of differences between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What does ‘success’ mean to you?

I have never felt successful at all. The most important thing for me is to be human, to work on your humanity and on your heart, to see the people around you increase, to able to teach and guide students and watch them grow and become teachers. It is important to understand that true success in life is when you leave behind an impression where people remember you as a good person, a good artist, with a good heart who was never hateful towards anyone. I have never felt jealous of another artist or woman or over a man. The whole time that I am painting, I don’t know the reason behind it. I don’t know why I have reached this level of success and subsequently I never feel successful. I wake up in the morning and I read “Shalemar Sharbatly is at the Louvre,” and I think, so what? I evaluate myself in two ways: Firstly, as a mother. I am a good mother to my only daughter. It is really important to invest in your children. Secondly, as a daughter. My mother is satisfied with me and when my dad passed away he was satisfied with me. And it is important to be good to people and to your friends.

The term ‘Middle Eastern Art’ seems to be used by many as a marker of a uniform phenomenon. Can Middle Eastern artists be said to share a set of traits?

Art does not have a nationality. When they refer to “Shalemar Sharbatly,” they say that she is a Saudi Artist, they don’t say that she creates Arab art. Art depends on the power of the imagination and imagination has no nationality. I am not talking about traditional art, I am talking about art in the 21st century. We are creating art in the same way as the rest of the world and subsequently our work is displayed all over the world, such as the Louvre, and we win top international awards. We are presenting our art to the world as a source of soft power to build bridges between Arabs and the West. The media, journalists and writers have a similar role. This is what the world needs right now to shrink the distance between us so that people can see that Arabs are civilized and are not terrorists.

Much has been written in recent years about Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning art scene. What are your impressions of this trend?

I think that this is a misunderstanding. Saudi Arabia has always valued and placed great importance on art. When I was 17 I was one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent artists and in 2008 I was asked to create a 18 meter painting in front of the Guest Palace and the American Embassy in Jeddah. The Jeddah Cornish features work by French artists including Henry Moore and sculptures such as Salah Abdelkarim. We have great art but because Saudi Arabia is not a tourist destination not everyone gets to see and appreciate it and therefore there is an inaccurate portrayal of the country.

I think that the West has a distorted perception of Saudi Arabia. The impression that women in Saudi Arabia are supressed is not true. Never in my life has anyone told me not to exhibit my work, on the contrary, I used to represent the Kingdom abroad along with other Saudi artists and we were strongly supported by the Ministry of Youth and Sport. The majority of my solo exhibitions were in Saudi Arabia. I think women being granted to right to drive will open up many more opportunities and give women more freedom, including intellectual freedom. Saudi Arabia is a sacred country and if our country resembled Europe we would not accept it.

What will Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 mean for Saudi society and the country’s art scene?

I think that the steps being taken to implement the Vision 2030 plan are important and will benefit society. Everyone is waiting for these carefully planned steps. I don’t support complete freedom because it carries a huge responsibility and therefore communities should take gradual and calculated steps towards freedom. We cannot detach completely from the conservative Islamic framework which we are satisfied with. I appeared on Saudi TV without hijab in 2006 and this didn’t cause any problems. Saudi women were not repressed like they say. If we were, then how have we managed to succeed and reach the Louvre and international galleries?

We need Saudi Arabia to establish an institution that embraces strong talents and supports them abroad, following in the footsteps of what Saudi Arabia did with the media industry. Saudi media became a pioneer in the field. All TV channels aspire to be like MBC and all newspapers aspire to be like Asharq Alawsat or Alhayat. It is necessary for music and art to be developed to embody their role in soft power because Europe respects and appreciates art and this will be the most effective diplomatic bridge that we can build. I hope that there will be an art academy in Saudi Arabia and King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman art awards. And I hope that there will be more art exhibitions, not just ones that are organised by the Saudi embassy because only Arabs visit them. I have never exhibited my work at the embassy because I want to present my work to Europe and the world to tell them that we have reached the Louvre. This way we can use art as a vehicle for sophisticated dialogue with the West.

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