Typing Yousef Ahmad’s name into Google yields plenty of results, but it’s one in particular that catches our eye. It’s a YouTube video apparently posted by the Qatari artist’s son, showing the smiling 55-year-old approaching famed Japanese artist Takashi Murakami – who redesigned the Louis Vuitton logo – for an autograph. Both are dressed in tuxedos. In return, Ahmad opens one of his own books and scrawls his signature for Murakami.
It’s these exchanges of art, culture and appreciation that he says will help develop art in the Middle East.
‘I want to present our identity to the world’, says Ahmad, whose renowned work combines desert landscapes with abstract Arabic calligraphy. Here, we hear from the artist about his work.
What message are you trying to convey with your art? I’m trying to represent our local environment to the globe. I do this using materials and subjects themselves. One of the materials I use is palm tree paper. I used to drive myself crazy buying hand-made paper from different parts of the world. When I went to Japan or Thailand, India, Nepal – anywhere – the first place I used to go was somewhere to buy hand-made paper. Then I just asked myself, ‘Why don’t I just produce the paper from my local tree?’ The first tree I ever used to make paper was the palm tree in our house. Now that’s my main medium. I ignore ordinary materials such as acrylic paints, brushes or oil colours. I don’t put my painting on a European easel – I just put it in the ground. I want to present our identity to the world.
Would you describe your art as abstract? Yes, I’m abstract. But even the artists from the end of the 19th century, the Europeans who discovered it, they took it from the East: the colours, the flat perspective.
Who are your favourite abstract artists? There are so many: Mark Rothko, Mark Tape, Robert Rauschenberg. One important artist that I particularly like is David Corn.
Which artist has influenced you the most? I’d have to say David Corn again. I spent three years in San Francisco from 1979 until 1982, and during my time there I found his book in a bookstore. I asked about him and found out there are several of his paintings in San Francisco Contemporary Museum so I went to see them. So I stick with this guy. [Laughs]
Tell us about the paints you use. You mentioned you don’t use acrylics… I use natural pigments from the ground, from the earth. I work particularly with earthy colours, because our landscape [in Qatar] is really earthy. Even if I used a red or green or yellow, it’s a little bit grey or hazy, because our weather is really dusty. You can see this very easily through my paintings.
How did you know you wanted to pursue art as a career? Art is in my blood. I can’t say I started this year or that year. It grew up with me, and I’ve been doing it for about 40 years.
How has art appreciation developed in Qatar? Qatar is culturally booming. We have two or three major museums here now. We have so many galleries showing and we invite well-known artists, such as Takashi Murakami. So many exciting things are happening in Qatar.
Speaking of Murakami, there’s a YouTube video online that shows you getting his autograph… Yes! [Laughs] It was in Paris – I presented him with my book, and I asked him to sign an autograph for me. Murakami is courageous. We have to respect all artists from different countries.
How would you like to see art develop in the Middle East? When the politics are down and the economy is up, then the art is going to get better.