In Dubai, A Former Graffiti Kid’s Politically and Sexually Charged Images

The painter Jeffar Khaldi has, since the early 2000s, been a steadily ascending star in the global art world—despite his subject matter often being difficult to categorize, and his style sardonic. But despite the aggressive, occasionally violent, nature of Khaldi’s paintings, many of which are inspired by states of turmoil, the artist insists: “I wouldn’t say I’m politically driven. I just vent and I tell these peoples’ stories.”

But for Khaldi, as for many, the boundary between the personal and the political can be quite blurry. Born in Lebanon to Palestinian parents and raised during the Lebanese Civil War, Khaldi moved to Texas when he was 16 and later studied interior architecture there. In Texas, Khaldi also made grafitti art and worked as a decorative painter, then set up shop in Dubai in the mid-1990s—which at the time was just beginning to become an economic and cultural megacenter. Khaldi would go on to open his own gallery there, B21.

The painter’s work is a colorful pastiche of images taken from the mass media and symbols of sexuality and violence—for a 2011 work he brought together stills from Max Max (1979), a dystopic Hollywood blockbuster, and footage shown on the news during the Libyan uprising. With a neo-expressionist visual style and a pop art-like eye for the ideological overtones of our visually saturated culture, Khaldi creates emotionally charged and raw images, often using oil on canvas. “I try and make some strong imagery,” says Khaldi. “I feel I have a responsibility to do these things.”

Despite having moved far past his origins as an angry graffiti kid, Khaldi still retains a healthy sense of satirical ingenuity, though he works in a more methodical and focused manner. Recently, the artist has concentrated his efforts on the repurposing of another sort of mass media: calligraphy, or at least his version of it. “Every [Arab] artist is doing calligraphy now and selling so much,” he says. “Well…I can calligraphy my own way!”

M. Osberg

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