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In the decades before the social opening that has come as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan, Saudi creativity largely bubbled undetected or surfaced only on social media and in small art collectives. After Vision 2030 was launched in 2016, Saudi artists were projected onto the global artistic forefront, supported by government initiatives, including the Red Sea International Film Festival, the Diriyah Contemporary Arts Biennale and Islamic Arts Biennale, and numerous music festivals.
In the world of Saudi visual art, young Saudi creatives have explored a breadth of themes, ranging from Dana Awartani’s architectural historical creations and Abdullah Al-Othman’s poetic explorations of faith and language to Ahaad Alamoudi’s technoethnographic musings on heritage and culture and Ayman Zedani’s investigative, speculative look at relationships between humans and nonhumans in nature. Working across small and large spaces, including the desert of Al Ula, Saudi artists shed light on history, society, culture, and, more broadly, life in their country. One young artist, an anonymous graphic designer known as RexChouk, has taken to social media and the streets to share tongue-in-cheek scenes of everyday life for young Saudis. His digital artwork, murals, and merchandise use humor and satire to strike a connection with Saudi and non-Saudi viewers alike, highlighting that, ultimately, life as a young, contemporary person looks much the same around the world, whether it comes to love and relationships or shopping and passing time.
AGSIW spoke to Saudi graphic artist RexChouk about his inspirations, the role of humor in making relatable artwork, and how the arts community in Saudi Arabia has shaped his creativity.
AGSIW: Tell us about your journey as an artist.
RexChouk: I’m a self-taught artist. I love and am really inspired by ancient history and ancient Egypt, so my name combines “Rex,” which is “king” in Latin, and “Chouk,” which is just a random nickname from a name that I liked and wanted to dissect. I studied in Boston and got a degree in finance and entrepreneurship in 2013 but had no experience or interest in art before I graduated. I was passionate about creating a positive impact and trying to find purpose in life, so I started working on a startup, but I shut it down within a year. Around that time, I stumbled upon a Keith Haring exhibition, and when I saw his work, I realized what art is, what it could be, and what it could do. Before that, I had the idea that art was supposed to look like an oil painting or be “Mona Lisa” quality. But the Haring exhibition was in a dope exhibition space with a lot of cool people from different backgrounds. I looked at his work and felt something. I could see what struggles he was going through regardless of whether I related to him or not, and the way he portrayed his ideas made his work so relatable. The work also reflected a moment in time – when you’re in the space surrounded by all these artworks, you were living back in the ‘80s. That really changed my perception of art, and it made me realize that, through art, you can create something that can bring people together or spark a conversation.
AGSIW: What is the thematic focus of your work?
RexChouk: When I first started making art back in 2013 – I was living in the United States – I was really trying to find myself, so I was painting on canvas frequently. I started incorporating some Saudi-inspired or Arab-inspired themes because, around 2015, when I was just getting into the scene in New York, the Middle East was going through some horrible times, and that’s what people knew through the news. Whenever I told people I was a Saudi artist, it was like an elephant in the room. I then did a show that was inspired by the stereotypes that we hear as Arabs, and that’s kind of how I started to really get into this Middle Eastern/Arab or Saudi expression.
When I moved back to Saudi Arabia, I obviously left my studio and favorite art shop behind, so I had to find ways to stay inspired. Just painting on canvas was not doing it for me anymore. I then bought an iPad and developed my new digital style. As I was doing this, I was living through different social contexts, so I thought a lot about the double standards or the versions that people like to show versus their true selves. That inspired me to talk more about experience in terms of a society or culture, especially pre-2017 and pre-Vision 2030 Saudi Arabia. I was really interested in these social gray areas. As I was working on these topics, Saudi Arabia continued to open up, and I feel like my work also reached new limits because the blurred redlines went further. I mostly focus on things that I’m feeling and the experiences that people around me are going through, using satire and humor.
AGSIW: Why does your work look so closely at the younger generation and contemporary Saudi youth?
RexChouk: It reflects my experience, but it’s also my audience. Obviously, when I moved back to Saudi Arabia, my medium and audience changed, and I wanted to do this for a living. So, my artwork became a narrative on not just my life but the life of my generation. I feel like our generation is a globalized one, so sometimes I can create artwork inspired by Saudi or Arab culture, but a non-Saudi who has experienced different types of cultures can relate and understand the humor. I like to create work that’s relatable to the viewer and is layered in different ways so it can be interpreted in different ways.
AGSIW: You’ve also collaborated with more commercial brands and projects, such as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. How does that contribute to your ethos of relatability?
RexChouk: Around 2019, I started to attract the attention of brands, whether in food and beverage or fashion, and people started to recognize my work. Brands started to ask for designs and collaboration opportunities, which is really cool. When a brand comes and they say, “We like your work. We want to work with you on a campaign,” that’s fun. For me, collaborating with brands is a cool way to be introduced to new audiences and create something that’s not just inspired by my story but also by other stories. The Formula One collaboration with the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix became one of my favorite collaborations.
I’m not creating work for the traditional art world audience. I’m doing it for the streets and the genuine people who are going through everyday struggles and everyday life – that’s where I find myself. When I first started making art in New York, I reached out to many different galleries, and none of them really gave me attention. I decided, “You know what? I really don’t need galleries. I can rent out the space for a weekend – and obviously I’m going to have to starve for a couple of months or make ends meet somehow to make it happen.” And I’m grateful because I had friends who supported me at the time. When I moved back to Saudi Arabia, I focused more on building my collector base and creating digital artworks with different editions and lower price points to generate some revenue. I never thought about work collaborations and brands. Like I said, I didn’t have any understanding of this world that I was in. I just believed there was an angle there to be explored, and I believed in myself, so I pursued it.
AGSIW: Tell us about the characters in your work – who do they represent?
RexChouk: I used to paint a character I named “RexChouk” – who happens to have the same name as me. When I moved back to Saudi Arabia, I made “YunnChoomy,” who is more like the normal guy who’s just living life to the fullest. On the other hand, RexChouk, or artwork involving Rex, is more about soul-searching and exploring deeper issues. There’s another character I created whose name is “YunnToony.” He is the best, most traditional kid you can have – he will kiss your grandmother on the forehead and help older people cross the road. He’s the version every Saudi mom wants for her daughter. Then there’s also “YunnFusty,” whose name comes from the Arabic word for pistachio. He is very laid-back, always has a deeper look at things, and is not fazed by what people think or say – a bit like Cleveland in “Family Guy.” The two main characters are YunnChoomy and “7uni”; they represent males and females in my world. So, each has a different vibe. I would love to eventually create a sitcom about my characters and stories.
AGSIW: Some of your work is set in outer space. What does this setting represent?
RexChouk: My intention in life is to live from the perspective of a spiritual being rather than a physical one. I feel like I relate to life much more like that, so my art is inspired by this idea and by me trying to get to know and embrace my spirit. That’s where my art is, and obviously the spirit is not really something that’s tangible. So, it’s in that parallel life or parallel universe that my art exists. It’s in the spiritual realm, in a way. So, when I think about the spirit and life from that perspective, visually speaking, it leads me to think of the universe, not just Earth, as a place or setting. That’s where the inspiration came from for the space vibes. Since moving back to Saudi Arabia, my artwork has increasingly been inspired by worldly things. That’s when, in my head, the spirits or the characters were thrown back down into phase one or ground zero, which is Earth. It’s like when Adam was sent back down to Earth – the clouds are also a way to show that I’m down here now. They also just look cool.
AGSIW: What role has community played for your work in Saudi Arabia?
RexChouk: The people I’ve met in the art community here and the support system I’ve found – through trying to hire people, working with others, and working through a lot of issues that you might get into – made me realize that people who genuinely connect to you on a spiritual level are the rarest commodity. So many of these people I have met were able to help me level up whatever I was doing. With graffiti, for example, I work with Azee, who’s like a partner to me when it comes to producing all my murals. There is also Diya, who has a printing and design studio and who enhances my work – because I’m not even a graphic designer, the files that I was creating were a nightmare – and helps me with printing and production. Now, I actually have a team that helps me with the sketches and animation, so my whole process as an artist has changed. I’m now operating more like a studio, and I feel like that is my community – and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
is an associate in arts, culture, and social trends at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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