Two artists walk into a room. There's an Absolut Warhol bottle on the table. What happens next? We let Cairo-based artists Hassan Hassan and Kareem Gouda do the talking in the first of our series of Art Exchange interviews, inspired by Andy Warhol.
As Absolut vodka release a special edition of their iconic bottle, designed by none other than the godfather of Pop art himself, Andy Warhol, we take inspiration from the legend’s influence on the arts and media scene, bringing two of Cairo’s young artists together over a cocktail or two. What happens next? Well, read for yourself as we let fashion illustrator and Pop artist Hassan Hassan and digital and commercial artist Kareem Gouda interview each other. Here, they talk inspiration, art in the age of the internet and even interpret each other’s work in their respective styles, exclusively for CairoScene…
Hassan: So you’ve been working in advertising for how long?
Kareem: For about two years. Anyways, Hassan I love your art! I seriously do, I mean I used to draw…
Hassan: Why did you stop?
Kareem: Because I went digital…
Hassan: But you have to always keep your hands busy to keep the skills sharp. Did you study art or did you study graphic design?
Kareem: No, I didn’t study either. I taught myself how to do everything.
Hassan: I feel that if you’re self-taught you’re a lot, lot better. Everyone I know that teaches themselves Photoshop are a lot more skilled with it because they just discover and they find things out and they play with it… which I feel is the point of art in general.
Kareem: The thing about illustrations though, is that you explore more.
Hassan: But both traditional and digital art are still very technical. There’s a lot of technique that goes into my sketches and paintings but there also has to be a little bit of fun and a bit of human error, so technique sometimes is secondary. I’m usually just playing and editing and suddenly it’s like, ‘Woah, I don’t know how this happened’ because I’d just be having a good time with it.
Kareem: I really like your series of the girls covered in blood. I like the fact that you mixed water colours with pencils.
Hassan: Actually, I was trying to cover up their flaws with the water colours. Another time, one of the sketches got wet and the ink bled, so I kept splashing water and changed the whole piece through that accident.
Kareem: You see, that’s the difference between illustrations and sketches versus Photoshop.
Hassan: I think they’re the same, essentially.
Kareem: Well, yeah they’re the same but on the computer we have an undo button!
Hassan: I have an eraser! What I’ve realised is that a lot of it is problem solving. When you click undo, you still have to think of a different approach. At least digital art is much more organised because everything is in files I’m just coming in here like “LOOK AT ALL MY PAPERS!” and I’m not sure which one this is and which one that is and what exactly is happening.
Kareem: It’s the worst thing ever if you lose a whole layer, though. Or worse yet – if you lose your whole hard disk! So, have you thought of turning your art digital?
Hassan: Yes but I don’t have the skill myself. I’m old school in the sense that I like to have all my tools be held and mixed and matched. I’ve tried to have other people do it for me but I’m too much of a control freak to have someone else play with it.
Kareem: Who are some of your influences?
Hassan: Pop art has been a really, really big inspiration of mine in the sense of the general tone and content, as well as the techniques. Andy Warhol’s silk screen printing for example – it was kind of the first step towards digital art given the way he could replicate the same thing over and over, changing just the colours.
Kareem: It is its own school and I love it as someone who appreciates art, but I’ve never gotten into producing these kinds of images.
Hassan: You should really give it a go.
Kareem: I really got into Shepard Fairey, the guy who created Obama’s ‘Hope’ campaign posters and the ‘Obey’ guerrilla street art campaign. I don’t know if you can consider him Pop art in the way Warhol established it, but it definitely speaks of our era and he’s constantly compared to him by the media and art critics. I had the honour to do an exhibition with him in Washington D.C actually. I’m interested to know, how would you describe my style in your own words?
Hassan: I think I would use the words clean and very minimal but very impactful. I feel like there’s a very Pop art feel to it – so you can feel the inspiration of Andy Warhol and Shepard Fairey Now I’m gonna cover my face while you say something about mine…
Kareem: Well, I’d say your art is twisted but in a good way. I like the lines and the details; it’s all about the details. Every character you draw, it’s about the eyes and the mouth and the colours. I really love how you’re into using pencils too.
Hassan: I guess this is what they call an awkward moment…
Kareem: It is an awkward moment… AWWW I LOVE YOUR ART!!!
Hassan: [Laughs] Is art an industry or an experience or both? I think for you, it’s both because you can use your art in both a commercial and a gallery setting.
Kareem: Actually not really. A creative director once told me that you will never get an art work as an artist into advertising.
Hassan: But that’s exactly what Andy Warhol did for Absolut…
Kareem: And the Campbell’s the tomato soup, I guess.
Hassan: I think in the case of Andy Warhol, Absolut can see that his style suits their image, and he, I assume, found that the brand can suit his style, and his lifestyle. If we’re talking about whether it’s an industry or an experience, I think it’s both because you can’t have an experience without an industry to propel it forward.
Kareem: Since you are an illustrator would you turn your art into advertising?
Hassan: You have to think about the style. As I said before, Andy Warhol’s style is evident in everything that he did and it was kind of like a meeting of both worlds and that’s the only situation I would ‘go commercial’ so to speak. I don’t like to compromise. I have done a few collaborations with brands before, but only when they’ve approached me to use my work on their products, not when it’s commissioned.
Kareem: Remember NEOBYRD’s first album? The art work with the wings? I did that.
Hassan: Yeah? That’s really cool actually.
Kareem: It went through a lot.
Hassan: I think when people are choosing you because of your style, you have to have the ability to say no and draw boundaries.
Kareem: But here in Egypt it’s all about the brief that you get from the client. Unfortunately, they’re very vague like, ‘Okay, you know this album cover? Can you do something like that? Can you do something with this logo?’ So, yes, I agree, you need to draw boundaries for commercial work and remind them that they’re coming to you for you.
Hassan: I think as far as Egypt is considered we have a long way to go because all of these industries are just beginning to develop, as far as advertising or fashion or any form of art is concerned, because it’s only very recently that we gotten out of the typical old man on the donkey and the felucca and it’s kind of moving forward in that sense. Especially now that Egypt is on the global radar. You have the artistic interest and you have the commercial interest from big companies.
Kareem: Do you think art has to have a deeper meaning or can it be taken at face value?
Hassan: All of my stuff is face value. I’m not deep at all! If you want me to be deep that’s up to you but I like to give the person who’s interacting with my work the freedom to feel what they want to feel. My own deeper meaning is really irrelevant as far as who was looking at it. Their deeper meaning is what matters not mine. I watch The Kardashians…
Kareem: I’d call most of your work fashion portraits.
Hassan: I think that fashion in general is fun and made for just aesthetic purposes. With fashion, like with art, it’s very personal at the end of the day even if you buy a tshirt from H&M or whatever. It’s still very much what the person does with it not what I do with it as a designer; it has nothing to do with me. I can’t tell you how to put it in your house, or how to interact with it or anything like that. If you wanna put it in the bathroom or the balcony or whatever, that’s fine!
Kareem: My interpretations of Breaking Bad posters are now hanging in my friend’s bathroom!
Hassan: That’s great. I’d love for people to have my work in the bathroom. I think that’s a really intimate nice place to spend time in. I like to work a lot in black and white a lot so I guess they can be placed anywhere.
Kareem: Lately I’ve gotten into colours. Back when I used to illustrate with pencils and stuff it was just black and white. Even my art teacher told me “You have to colour your pictures, you don’t have to live with black and white all your life!”
Hassan: I don’t think I have a personal preference as far as colours are concerned. I think recently I’ve been off colour but I like to throw a splash of colour in, especially when I look at my own Instagram and it’s all monochrome.
Kareem: But it never gets mundane because of the details. That’s why I love your work – it’s all about the details. The lines are perfect…
Hassan: Yeah but that’s because I zone out and I’m watching something stupid on TV, or listening to RnB, I swear.
Kareem: The lines, the circles you know… to me it’s perfect! The most perfect thing of all is that you have your own style. It can be identified from miles away.
Hassan: That was one of the things that made me not study art because every single professor told me to “Kill that style! You have to get the basics first and then develop your style.” And I’m like, aren’t you supposed to be teaching me to develop a style?! What did you study?
Kareem: It’s a funny story! I got into law school but got kicked out after a fight with a professor and then I got banned from all Egyptian universities! I ended up at a crappy institute, where I passed because I knew I could spell ‘watermelon’ in English. Seriously! What did you study?
Hassan: I studied Mass Com at AUC.
Kareem: It’s funny how both of us are artists and were both into art and we never studied it.
Hassan: Yeah but I really appreciate the fact that I did that! What kind of experiences inspires you as an artist?
Kareem: This is going to sound very cheesy but I would say life. Everything around me is inspirational.
Hassan: That’s what I always say, but if you want me to get specific, I feel like what you need to do is stop looking for inspiration and just experience things. That’s really the kind of advice I’d give.
Kareem: Exactly. In my case, everything that surrounds me inspires me. Recently, it has been going through my mind that I wanna do something with chalk…
Hassan: That’s the beauty of digital art. You can mix it with real materials, and you can edit and edit until you’ve reached the final product. As far as inspiration is concerned I feel like it’s one of the things where everything that you do makes a difference. Even having a corporate job and just being forced to deal with clients. I feel the discipline of an agency is a wonderful thing because you try to swing it back into your own personal life. Like I do have to be creative on call and I do have to do this on time.
Kareem: If the agency or the clients are giving you “We don’t have time! We need it now!!!” it does transcend into how you approach your own art work.
Hassan: I think the ability to zone out on the beach and not care about anything is what inspires you, not the beach itself. Like it’s the feeling that the place kind of evokes and that’s always what you kind of have to go back to. So when you say life inspires you, it makes sense to me. Do you want to continue doing digital stuff or do you want to expand into exhibiting more?
Kareem: I already had an exhibition with the beard series that you reinterpreted and it has been traveling the world in an organic way. A friend of mine walked into a barber shop in Sweden and found the prints on the wall!
Hassan: That’s really cool! I’ve just gotten my new notebooks into stores, so I hope I’ll be having the same kind experiences – walking into places and finding my art.
Photography by Mahmoud Asfour.