We delve into the multiverse of Walid Zou’bi as the flamboyant artist returns to exhibiting after an extended hiatus.
On the opening day of his latest solo exhibition, the first in 14 years, artist Walid Zou’bi had an allergic reaction. “I was driving to the gallery at 4:30 in the afternoon and then, all of a sudden, my lips swelled up. You know, usually people’s eyes water and get smaller, me no; my lips ballooned. It really was ridiculous! When I arrived, all of my friends were laughing and joking that I’d gone and prettified myself for the occasion,” he recalls. Ironically, the artist’s allergen-enhanced pout bore a strong resemblance to the sensual smiles of the menacing assassins and arcane temptresses depicted in his works.
“You will notice that the lips are full and the pupils are dilated. That is why people like the works: the pictures are looking back at them with desire,” shares the make-up doyenne who is dressed in head-to-toe black, and yet no less vibrant. “It’s psychology.”
“I’m a bit insidious aren’t I?” he questions before launching into a tirade on women’s affinity for unsightly collagen-pumped trout pouts. The effervescent individual can’t pass up a chance for Machiavellianism and cites the cunning Italian diplomat as one of his heroes.
Zou’bi, who has exhibited his works in Scandinavia, was back showcasing his art “at home” in the Grand Hyatt Amman’s Zara Gallery throughout September and October. The contemporary gallery with its spiralling central staircase also hosted the artist’s first exhibition, chronicling comic book art through original works, in 2001. Five years later, he found himself at a creative impasse upon the passing of his mother, who was a medical doctor yet still cherished the arts and encouraged her children to be well rounded. “I stopped drawing for all those years, until my godmother said to me, ‘You are not honouring your mother’s memory by stagnating’,” recalls Zou’bi. “She knew exactly which buttons to push and ordered: ‘Just start scribbling or whatever it is. Do anything because then you’ll get back into the rhythm of things.’”
His profound adoration of mothers shines through as he unwraps the exhibited work Neon Womb. “Mother stands for comfort and is the one who filters out all the poisons, all that negativity, from when you are young to when you grow old. In the beginning this starts in the womb.”
The Amman-born artist infuses his output with an amalgam of heritage influences, drawing from his Danish, Jordanian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German, French and Spanish roots. “The ideas in my art are so European but at the same time the styles are Eastern, and that’s what I am. I’m Occidental and Oriental,” he explains. Panning the exhibition, Nordic runes and arabesque elements are fêted. There’s the affectionately dubbed Sheikha Mozah followed by a trio of cyberhead sarcophagus-like subjects. “The shape is basically Egyptian meets Indian, they’re inspired by queens of lost continents like Lemuria, Mu and Atlantis, but also church windows,” explains the artist, devilishly pointing out the irony of including vampire teeth.
The multifaceted Triple Godess 3 has been revealed as the most popular piece on exhibit so far. “It is: maiden, mother, crone, and it’s also Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos (the Moirai: goddesses of fate and destiny). There are some characters from I Ching, an ancient divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics, while the florals are an arabesque-rework of the flower of life, and the composition is backed by the sacred interlaced triquetra,” decodes Zou’bi. “There’s a lot of esoteric and occult in my work, but it is also about philosophy and archetypes,” he continues, referencing the pagan, Christian and Islamic iconography employed as well as odes to the present-day worship of “infallible” science and computers. Zou’bi is believed to be descended from a line of Sufi thinkers, including the saint Abdul-Qadir Gilani. In select works featuring his photography, he deviantly sets out to sanctify himself and several close friends. “It’s a little irreverent and at the same time fun.”
Zou’bi studied commercial art and fashion design in England, followed by art therapy in Denmark, where he specialised in make-up and immersed himself in the performing and fine arts scenes. Captivated by the surrealists, symbolists, decadents and pre-Raphaelite painters, the erudite museum-dweller was also fortunate to be influenced from childhood by two of the Levant’s most revered artists. “Texture and colour was taught to me by HRH Fakhrelnissa Zeid, perception and depth by Mohannad Durra, who was my neighbour in Shmeisani,” he explains. Sharp-witted Dane, Piet Hein, the creator of the grook (a brief yet sophisticated and sartical rhyme popularised in the 1960s) also made an impression on Zou’bi’s subversive art, as did Frank Frazetta, Chris Achilleos and Boris Vallejo of comic book renown. “These are the guys; the women they created are all very voluptuous and muscular. Vallejo even used to take Polaroids of body builders and draw from those,” adds Zou’bi before a cutesy K-Pop ringtone interrupts. A friend is inquiring when she may witness the L’Occhio Dello Spadaccino (The Eye of The Swordsman) exhibition, in the presence of the brush-wielding artist himself.
The show’s title is defensive, a slight on those who criticise the mass appeal of such works and their modern production techniques. “It’s popular and it’s art. Anyone who gets insulted by the moniker of pop art has bricks for brains,” rebukes Zou’bi. “There is nothing wrong with the fact that today you can use a computer to enhance the work that you are doing. If Leonardo Da Vinci were alive, he’d be using Photoshop and Illustrator too!”
It’s undeniably obvious that Zou’bi lives for drama, even before he identifies exhibition self portraits or discloses fond memories from his stints as a Las Vegas showgirl, the character Maleficent in a Jordanian Sleeping Beauty production and the Wicked Stepmother in a Cinderella ballet. Art, performance, special effects make-up, fashion and jewellery design – the polymath’s diverse repertoire mirrors his disposition. “I like everything to be dysfunctional, like me… I’m all over the place; it’s either a breathe of fresh air or Hurricane Walid.”
The eccentric’s latest showcase was restricted to canvas and paper, though only because the Ramadan holiday left no time to make the epic stained-glass constructions he had envisaged for those Cyberheads. The 30 works on display combine layers of unforgiving ink lines, customised watercolour hues, stencilled or airbrushed panes, accented digital prints and original photographs. The artist shuns acrylic and oils in favour of the animator’s sidekick, Chromacolour pure pigment paints. “I basically use anything under the kitchen sink. “The colours are all within the same dusty tones, because I often use soap water to give them that antiqued, marbleised look,” he explains. Surprisingly, no collaging is involved, although in examples like Medeusoid Zou’bi has left ever-so-slight gaps between element edges to make them appear as perimeters of cutting, just to “screw with people’s perceptions.” This is something he revels in, moving the golden ratio askew in his otherwise symmetrical works or deliberately including a text typo, so as to not tempt the gods. “I used to be OCD, relentlessly intent on having everything in its place. Because I’m always conscious of that, I make myself move everything slightly off. This way people pay attention and the art holds their intrigue.”
Concepts come to this magnetic personality from myriad sources: a dream, something read, the scent of perfume or simply by “just sitting there, zoning out in the middle of a conversation.” The experienced art director finds he’s fast at envisaging and finalising a work in his mind. This allows him to quickly get to sketching, before the longer phases of painting and finessing. Zou’bi’s creative Achilles-heel, he humbly admits, is not being able to draw on command nor reproduce the same exact figure. “This is why I haven’t done comic books. I respect those who can so much.”
Each mille-feuille is embellished on Photoshop or by hand for what Zou’bi asserts are equally precise results. “The swordsman, he has to be very alert, have quick reactions, heightened senses and be in tune with what is going on,” he starts. The latest exhibition catalogues varied styles of works from 2011 and 2015; with the inclusion of a few pieces from the original 2001 show. Nevertheless, all “dabblings” are unified in their respect for detail, both visual and conceptual. “If you are detail-oriented you will see the many levels and ideas that have gone into the melting pot that is my art.”
This modern-day iconoclast walks a fantastical tightrope, enlisting contemporary technology as he manipulates classical art forms, imbuing the results with wit and enchanting mystical qualities. “My style was already there, for as long as I can remember. I was a very advanced kid. I guess I’m a braniac, but I think I’ve always been distracted,” he reflects. The satirically self-professed “post-traumatic-neo-realistic-fascistic-pre-Raphaelite-surrealist” style that Zou’bi has fashioned is driven by a mood of dichotomy, calling on 18th century maestros as much as gen-Z geniuses.
In one work, villains are seen masquerading as superheroes while the saviours take on more ominous disguises to the save the world. These wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing are unexpected and hold the eye as one searches for a justification. Also inviting introspection is a piece, backed with a Thai-batik style wash of blue and red. “This is relationships and creation, agony and ecstasy,” explains Zou’bi. Nearby, a work splicing black and white with a mask-removing-figure represents “the three faces we wear: the dark side, the lighter side and the in-between.”
“Has my art evolved or devolved? It’s sort of like a state of fugue. I look at my old work and I see that there is more detail, but the funny thing is, with my new work the background is more layered and textured,” explains the artist, noting the impact of a restrictive eye surgery. Zou’bi vows to keep on creating (in the absence of developing debilitating arthritis). “It’ll be a combination of whatever tickles my fancy, from painting to performance,” he beams. “I have insomnia so creating art makes staying awake more fun.”
Photography: Amer Sweidan and Courtesy of Walid Zou’bi