While street art has become the the medium du jour here in Egypt, one Alexandrian has taken his talent across the world. We chat with the award-winning Nazir Tanbouli about creating the biggest mural London has seen and the problem with Egyptian art.
Since the revolution back in 2011, the art scene, specifically street art, has boomed in Egypt with the likes of graffiti artists like Aya Tarek, Ganzeer and Kaizer (to name just a few) coming into fruition, but there are a scattering of Egyptian artists who have been plying their trade for far longer and making waves on a global scale. One of Egypt’s most prominent street art exports would be Nazir Tanbouli. Currently residing and working in London, Tanbouli honed his skills from the very early age of two, with art instilled thoroughly in his family’s bloodline. His uncle is the famous painter Ibrahim El-Tanbouli and his great uncle was the lauded painter and Egyptologist, Lotfy El-Tanbouli. After studying Expressive Art at Alexandria University for five years, he began exhibiting his unique, surreal and animated paintings abroad. He’s since won a bookshelf of awards and an impressive list of exhibitors, including the famed Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. While he’s not a graffiti artist per se, he has taken his art to the streets with stunning commissioned murals across London, as well as starting up an independent studio with his wife, Studio 75. We catch up with Tanbouli to get his take on the current art scene in Egypt and the UK and find out more about the man who was colouring inside the lines when you were still scribbling on the walls...
How familiar are you with the local art scene currently, and what was it like back when you studied art in Alexandria?
To be honest with you I'm not really following the Egyptian street art scene, but I do make a point of looking at stuff. I don't follow specific artists. From my point of view, I think that everywhere, not just in Egypt, there's been a graffiti boom. I find this really positive in general. It represents ordinary people, especially the young ones, trying to take control of both culture and media by taking over public walls. This comes out of a general disillusionment with mainstream culture and media. But from an artist's point of view, this has two problems. One, most of it isn't really 'art' as much it is expression. We need to be aware that not every expression can be regarded as art. Number two, in a country like Egypt - where we invented mural painting thousands of years ago - it makes me unhappy seeing that much of the Egyptian street art really just copies styles and methods done in Europe and the USA, stuff done for years by people like Banksy. I would really like to see Egyptian muralists rather than “street artists,” who can represent their own culture in the street, like what takes place in Mexico or Brazil.
With Egypt being (for lack of a better word) the 'trendiest' country in the world right now, have you thought about coming back here for any specific art projects?
Of course; I'm happy to do that anytime, if the right project comes at the right time.
Aside from commissioned murals, do you ever create your own unsolicited street art?
Look, the fact of the matter is I'm not a street artist, I'm a painter and a muralist. The common place for murals is public places, the streets are part of that. I work on the street sometimes because it's communicative with a large audience not because I'm a street artist. Therefore, I've never done unsolicited work on walls. I'm always either commissioned or permitted. I paint in public to be seen, to be talked to, to be engaged with. So I can't see the point of doing it in the dark and then running.
Where does most of your inspiration for your pieces come from?
I don't believe in inspiration. I'm a prolific painter because I have practiced painting and drawing every single day of my life since I was two years old. I became painting, and painting became me. I just have to stand in front of an empty surface for a few minutes for painting to happen.
Who were your favourite artists growing up?
My principal influence was the great Alexandria painter, Abdul Hadi Al Gazzar.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
I don't know how to classify my life in highlights. But over the last 25 years, I've worked in and exhibited my work in many countries all over the world: the UK, Germany, Italy, Russia, New York, the UAE and of course I had a very established career in Egypt. I've collaborated and engaged with artists from almost everywhere. For the last 10 years, I've lived in Hackney in London, which is home to the biggest gathering of artists on the planet in the 21st century. It's my home now. You can say that every step of the way has been a highlight in its own right.
What is your take on London's contemporary art scene? Do you appreciate the works of Damien Hirst for instance or do you think he's a bit of a c***t?
The exciting thing about London is there isn't just “an” art scene. There are many different scenes and every scene has its own artists, own spaces and its own audience. London is just too big, and too diverse, and too liberated to have only one scene. The likes of Damien Hirst belong to a group of artists who became known to the public in the early 1990s, labelled as the “Young British Artist” movement (of course we use this term as a reference point now, since they are not young anymore!). Like many other artists, I believe that this movement was created by the King of British advertisement, Charles Saatchi, when he applied his revolutionary branding policy to art. He created many different brands which he enforced, and Damien Hirst is one of them.
As for me, my wife and my friends, we all belong to the independent art studio scene. This means a bunch of people having access to places, who run their own art projects in independence from official cultural, academic, commercial, collectors’ or political criteria.
Can you tell us a bit about the birth of Studio 75, the kind of exhibitions it hosts, and how often, if ever, do you have Egyptian artists exhibit?
Almost three years ago, together with my wife, I started Studio 75. We were lucky enough to be given as a studio an ordinary ground floor flat in an area that was about to undergo gentrification. We were really lucky to not have to pay rent for this studio, because we are in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. We realised that not having to pay the rent every month was a liberation therefore, I used it as chance to curate exhibitions for artists from all over the planet who would like an opportunity to exhibit in London. And my wife, Canadian filmmaker Gillian McIver, found it was a good chance to run her own film club, where put on free screenings for anyone who is interested in all kinds of films that are not usually in mainstream film theatres.
Studio 75 functioned as a creative hub and active point in the middle of a semi-derelict housing estate, waiting to be knocked down. Now Studio 75 exists as .com waiting for the next space that we will invade. Currently, we run THE YELLOW WALL project which is our own gallery within somebody else's place: the Chalet café. With this project, we are still operating like Studio 75, working on bringing art to people who don't necessarily go to the galleries, and also to provide a place to exhibit for the artists whom we like.
At Studio 75, aside from myself, we exhibited only one Egyptian artist, my uncle Ibrahim El Tanbouli, when he made his last visit to London. However, with THE YELLOW WALL we're looking forward to bringing the work of Egyptian artists here, waiting on some digital prints from the likes of Hani Mahfouz and Walid Taher. Taking into consideration that we are independent artists and curators, interested predominantly in exhibiting, the most functional way to bring Egyptian artists to London is probably exchanging digital files - though I'm not a fan of the digital media myself.
It seems that a lot of the murals you paint are in somewhat gentrified or derelict parts of London, is this a conscience decision?
I can see how you got the idea, but it's not true that I do most of my murals in derelict areas. What happened is that last year I did the Kingsland Project. What I wanted to do was to create and install a record-breaking number of murals. I used as my territory; the semi-derelict housing estate around Studio 75. In about three months, I had installed more than 30 murals, covering 13 buildings. At the time, this was regarded as the largest area painted by a single artist at one time in the history of London street art. I'm sure you understand that there's no way you'd get a chance to do something like that in a trendy, downtown neighbourhood. Otherwise, really, I work wherever I find walls and wherever those walls are.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now, I'm a week away from finishing my most recent mural, THE PAINT FACTORY. This mural covers the whole interior public area of a five-story building, from entrance to roof, with a vivid abstract painting. The building used to be a factory for artists’ materials, a company established in 1766, hence the title. These days, the building is a creative complex, which includes a lot of interesting companies in fashion, architecture, sound recording, television and film production. The mural will be the centrepiece of the refurbishment of this old building, and it will be officially opened by the Mayor of London on the 18th of September.
Your Saatchi profile mentions your interests in themes of storytelling and mythology. What is your favourite mythical story?
Ah, the Saatchi profile. Yes, I am interested in mythology, but as narrative dramatic structure, not necessarily in any specific fairytale. I'm also interested in symbolism, iconography, Zen calligraphy and shamanic practices. I just haven’t updated the Saatchi profile for about five years!
Is your art available anywhere in Egypt for public viewing or sale?
My dealer in Egypt is Arts Mart, and you can check out some of my pieces for sale here.
(Thanks to Gillian McIver, Jaime Armengol and Colin Cafferty for the photos)