American street artist Shepard Fairey opens his first Middle East show in Dubai

The former skateboarder has also created a mural in Dubai Design District

Shepard Fairey working on a painting of a peace dove. Courtesy Opera Gallery
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Renowned American skateboarder-turned-artist Shepard Fairey will open his first Middle East show on Monday at Dubai's Opera Gallery.

Entitled Future Mosaic, the exhibition features 150 new and famous works by Fairey done on paper, canvas, wood and metal.

The footprint of the Burj Khalifa resembles a mandala, which is a motif I use in a lot of my work

Speaking with The National via Zoom before his arrival, Fairey shared his excitement at visiting the region for the first time.

“Travelling is something that I really love to do. For me, it's one of the most important facets of me, feeling like I am global citizen rather than an ignorant American,” he said.

Fairey has known Opera Gallery founder and chairman Gilles Dyan for more than a decade, and so he says this show has been in the works for a while.

“I saw Gilles a couple of years ago at Art Basel and we started talking, and he said, 'we have a gallery in Dubai'. So that’s how it came about.

"You have desires and offers, and occasionally they come together harmoniously.”

'Andre the Giant Has a Posse', which later became known simply as 'Obey', by Shepard Fairey. Courtesy Opera Gallery

He is, he explains, painfully aware of the limited view many Americans have of this region. “The way a lot of people in the US try to characterise all Arab nations, all Muslims and the entire Middle East, it is just painful how simplistic and frequently insulting it is.

"So, I am excited to go to Dubai for a lot of reasons. The footprint of the Burj Khalifa resembles a mandala, which is a motif I use in a lot of my work. So, you know, let's build cultural bridges.”

Fittingly, Fairey has also created a unique mural in Dubai Design District. Spread across two opposite walls, the work features a peace dove and a fist holding a flower.

As part of his exhibition in Dubai, Shepard Fairey has created a unique mural in d3. Courtesy Opera Gallery

Shepard Fairey's rise to fame

A natural provocateur, Fairey uses seemingly lighthearted images to highlight social injustice. He started out in 1989 with a guerrilla sticker campaign across Los Angeles, featuring an artwork dubbed Andre the Giant Has a Posse, which he based on real-life professional wrestler Andre the Giant.

Despite being what he describes as an "inside joke with a bunch of skateboarders and punk rock friends", the work captured people's attention, morphing into a campaign called Obey, which saw the face of Andre painted on walls, water towers and the side of buildings.

The campaign opened Fairey's eyes to the power of imagery. The challenge, he explains, was “how could I take this quirky inside joke and make it meaningful without losing the accessibility and fun of it?”.

The 2016 'Hope' poster created by Shepard Fairey. Courtesy Opera Gallery

In 2008, Fairey shot to worldwide fame with his Hope poster, featuring then-Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

“I wanted to do something that fell outside the conventional political imagery,” Fairey explains. “[It needed to be] different enough to be fresh, but close enough to be palatable to the mainstream.”

Fairey felt compelled to support Obama. The resulting blue and red image deliberately removed his skin colour, Fairey says, "to put him on an equal footing" in an inherently racist system. It quickly went viral, but, despite its global traction, Fairey remains humble about the image.

Shepard Fairey painting an 'Obey' mural. Courtesy Opera Gallery

“The feeling that people got watching him as an orator was so compelling, and I guess I caught that wave perfectly. I am not saying the image itself doesn’t have some strength, but the main person who gets the credit is Obama, for being Obama,” he says.

Erudite and intellectual, Fairey is much more than just about street art, and his deep sense of social justice has meant this former skateboarder has had his work shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian in Washington and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

His Dubai show has been designed to showcase his story, inspired by the artists who highlighted social injustice before him.

“All I did was take that principle and create a whole series of works that keep building on that idea. It keeps it interesting and evolving. That’s why the name of my show is Future Mosaic, because I have been building this mosaic, a little piece here, a little piece there.

"So I am hoping that people will see it all at once and have that ‘Aha!’ moment about what I have been trying to do all these years.”