Look very closely at some of the characters in Fathima Mohiuddin’s latest piece of striking street art, and something witty is gradually revealed. A fish labours with tired-looking bags under its eyes – for a genuine reason. Dubai’s Mohiuddin, a 2011 Emirates Woman of the Year nominee and well-known in the UAE, was invited to London to paint as part of the Shubbak festival’s celebration of Gulf street art under the Breaking Cover strand. But when she got to her site, just off Brick Lane, there was a slight problem: she could only paint after midnight.
“We started whitewashing the wall we were given to use, but all of a sudden a restaurant owner over the road said our paint fumes were driving away his customers,” she says. “So the curator, Cedar Lewisohn, arranged that we would paint overnight – hence the bags under the eyes, drawn at 3.30am. We [were] totally exhausted.”
In a way, this spontaneous gesture sums up Mohiuddin’s approach and the whole point of street art. It’s supposed to be impulsive and impromptu, reacting to and, perhaps, commenting on the environment it is in – which in Mohiuddin’s case has been everywhere from Toronto and New York to Sharjah and Dubai. For her, it’s all about finding a moment and reflecting feelings and ideas through instinct.
“I do a lot of live events in Dubai, where someone builds you a wall to paint on with a perfectly smooth surface and great lighting. People take your picture, you become a celebrity of a sort,” says Mohiuddin. “But in this case, we had the problems with when we could paint, the street was slanted so when I was on the ladder people were convinced I was about to fall off – I was terrified. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. For me, painting is about the process and the narrative. I work off the energy of the people and place I’m in.”
Mohiuddin often layers text next to her images, which offers clues to her mindset. Here, it is: “Don’t forget your heart,” which refers to six recent weeks travelling around upstate New York, a break from a hectic year of work.
“I’ve been dancing in the rain, having Woody Allen moments with strangers in bars,” she says. The fantastical, almost machine-like feel of the piece reflects how her life had become almost mechanical, with a deliberately chaotic and claustrophobic atmosphere to it.
Her company, The Domino, has worked with brands and organisations such as Red Bull, Tiger Translate and The British Council – which supported this latest piece – to not only put on live-art events, but also help the development of an art scene in the UAE. She thinks the notion of street art here is gradually improving.
“We only started getting decent spray cans two years ago,” she says. “Actually, I think it’s the multinational brands wanting to work with artists and creatives that has been a huge factor in Dubai. And once something becomes cool, in true Dubai fashion, it explodes. Which is how we ended up with the Guinness World Record attempt for the longest graffiti wall in the world last year.”
Mohiuddin wasn’t involved in that project, but admits it was amazing for UAE artists to see some of the world’s best graffiti talent – even if the publicity hasn’t yet led to a situation whereby artists have a place to paint with no restriction. But she can see a creative community developing.
“The Domino also does workshops, tours, mentorship – it’s about encouraging people and having a social conscience, too. So when these young artists become confident, popular and cool, I want them to think about doing something for other people.”
All this from a 31-year-old Dubai-born artist who developed her large-scale work at the University of Toronto, painting murals for challenged communities. Her MA dissertation at Goldsmiths was on art in public spaces, which meant spending “pretty much a year walking around London looking for street art”.
“What that made me realise is that public art can touch people in a way art in a gallery can’t,” she says. “I love the magic of interaction, when people stop in the street and look at art, pose in front of it, lick it, even! Art is a very social thing, which I genuinely think can change society.”
Indeed, Cosmopolitan magazine called her a "role model" this year and, though she was uneasy with the accolade, she does understand being an inspiration brings with it influence.
“My family is Indian, I was raised in Dubai, I’m a Canadian citizen and I speak with a British accent,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me they were surprised to see a Muslim girl up on a ladder, painting on the street. And even though to me I’m just a wacky person painting walls, I’m now in a position where I can say to the UAE authorities that I’ve represented the Emirates in New York and London, and people were fascinated by what they saw. Who knows what that might lead to for the UAE art scene?”
• Fathima Mohiuddin’s piece for Breaking Cover is on Hanbury Street, London. Visit www.shubbak.co.uk