Mohammed Kanoo Shows How Arab Culture Is Never Black and White

Mohammed Kanoo obama
Mohammed Kanoo’s portraits aim to tease out our biases about the Middle East. Above is US President Barack Obama. 

In his solo exhibition Fun with Fen (fen is Arabic for “art”) currently on display at Dubai’s Meem Gallery, the Bahraini artist Mohammed Kanoo depicts international celebrities dressed in traditional Arab costume. Kanoo’s digitally enhanced photographs are described as humorous commentary on pop culture, but the reactions they provoke may be a bit darker.


Take a peek at a few images from his gallery and gauge your own response.

Mohammed Kanoo portraits

The portraits play with our perception, specific to social tolerance and international diplomacy. Politicians, musicians, and Hollywood movies stars are all fair game. Clint Eastwood and John Travolta sport keffiyeh: Angelina Jolie rocks her hijab. Free makeovers go to actors Hugh Laurie and Will Smith. Royal cutie Prince William trades in his crown.  Dead people can play dress-up too: see Josef Stalin and Amy Winehouse model headscarves.

Mohammed Kanoo john travolta

But the image of Barack Obama, particularly in this election year, is a powder keg.  Hilary Clinton is included, but where is Mitt Romney?

In the past few weeks, the images have gone viral.

This particular series is entitled, “A Question of Identity (2012)”. It’s the artist’s newest poke at diplomacy, politics, and religion.

The Meem exhibition is broader than these provocative photos; it includes the Kanoo’s paintings Abayya Army and the Red Balloon, Catching Fish, and Henna Stop Sign.

Kanoo is self-taught.  Starting as a painter, his work now embraces applied media, photography and Arab calligraphy.

His recent works pay homage to artists he holds as influential: AraMao is based on Andy Warhol’s portrait of Chairman Mao; and Kanoo reinterprets Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa, replacing Mount Fuji with Dubai’s Burj Al Arab.

His earlier paintings have been in the Pop Art style of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. One of his first works was a portrait of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late founder of the United Arab Emirates, and a personal hero of Green Prophet’s Green Sheik.

The artist draws inspiration from his Islamic and Gulf roots. He is one of the founders of the Ghaf Art Gallery, the first art gallery in Abu Dhabi, established in 2006.

There is a tension in his work.  He interprets popular culture whilst respecting the artistic prohibitions of his faith. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, Kanoo has focused on advancing an artistic platform that presents an alternative and positive view of contemporary Arabia.

In the case of his altered portraits, he invites us to imagine what we’d look like if we swapped each other’s clothing. The experience can make us conscious of cultural preconceptions we hadn’t really considered.  Awareness is a necessary first step towards understanding. It can start a dialogue that destroys false preconceptions.  A picture’s worth a thousand words, indeed.

It’s encouraging to see growing recognition in the West of artists from the Middle East, whether through high-brow venues in major cities or accesible street art everywhere.

In a statement though Meem, Kanoo says, “The bottom line is that tolerance is an important aspect of our faith as Arabs and Muslims. Contemporary human difficulties are common problems for all humanity.  That is what brings us together”.

If you are in Dubai, drop in to the Meem Art Gallery.  Exhibition ends July 5.  Check out the gallery’s site for more information.

And if you’re not lucky enough to be local, this short film will bring you to the party.

Images via Meem Art Gallery

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One thought on “Mohammed Kanoo Shows How Arab Culture Is Never Black and White”

  1. layla says:

    I love this art lol. I think hillary looks great! they all look better 🙂

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