By Nourah Amer Al-Oseimi
Exclusive to The Times, Kuwait
Known for our business savvy and overt sense of entitlement, very little attention is paid to the creative forces that lie within so many young Kuwaitis. An example of such a force is Mohammed Al Mohanna, 30, who found himself immersed in the arts and creative forms of expression since the young age of 8. Mohammed entered Let’s Coffee, our meeting spot, with his rucksack that included a plethora of stolen pens and samples of his distinct work.
He joked about his unconscious tendency to pick up pens whenever he saw them laying around, so he can use them to draw later. I began asking Mohammed an obligatory set of questions that most artists detested hearing, having answered them countless times already – “When did your journey begin as an artist?” “What inspires you to create?”. He was the ultimate team player, nonetheless, and explained to me his early inspirations as well as his home life and childhood.
He spoke reminiscently about his family’s old house in Mishref, where most of his artistic roots were founded. “I was too attached to the house, and I still am. I go to Mishref every week because there are so many connections I need to fit.” As Mohammed continued to describe his inspirations, ranging from Disney cartoons to Japanese culture, I sensed that nostalgia was a key driver and major theme behind all his works.
“I feel everything, the bricks, the grass, [the house], it made me.” Cloudicorn, largely considered his signature character and shaped like a cloud with a horn, materialized in 2014. Mohammed developed a full backstory to this character as well as each of his creations.
“Art shouldn’t always be in a frame, it’s more challenging to sell your art in a different way, and this is the creative economy that is currently lacking in Kuwait.” This mode of thinking was triggered when Gap approached Mohammed to collaborate artistically on their jeans collection three years ago. He knew immediately that he did not want to simply draw or print, he wanted to think outside the box.
“I proposed the idea of having patches and there’s a story behind every single character and they liked it.” Upon realizing Mohammed’s knack for justifying his characters and their existence, I asked him if he enjoys story-telling as well.
He told me that every character must have a story and a family, even if it is brief, “if I leave them [without a story], I feel like they’re just suspended somewhere.” The Gap collection did really well in both Dubai and Kuwait markets, he was positively surprised when the patches needed to be restocked at The Yard Kuwait. Mohammed’s rationale is that customers should have a choice on what goes on to their clothing and so, the patches could be ironed or stitched on. He currently has a wholesale agreement with The Yard Kuwait and other concept stores which he considers “a new challenge” because his art is being transformed into products. “The product will sell the illustration and the illustration will sell the product.”
I smiled at Mohammed when he said this, as his statement perfectly encapsulated the marriage of art and business and the bounty of value this can create for both artists and customers. At this point of our conversation, I found myself wondering how Mohammed attracted the attention of big labels and clients. I asked him about the success factors that enabled him to obtain such opportunities to which he responded very simply – “social media, and the support of family and friends”.
I wanted to learn more about Mohammed and his professional background prior to pursuing his art professionally. He told me about his experience in a major telecommunications corporation and how it shaped his understanding of marketing and advertising in the digital era.
He reveled in all the knowledge he gained during that time which he actively uses to promote himself and his work. If anything, Mohammed wholeheartedly encourages young artists to pursue full-time employment for a few years before starting their own creative firm – “work somewhere and then start something, you’ll learn how to be professional.”
A natural question that came about when we were discussing careers is whether artists are given opportunities in Kuwait to pursue their passion full-time and if the job market is responsive to this type of skill-set. Mohammed has a very positive outlook on this and believes that so many businesses have emerged over the past couple of years that are art-centric. “Everything should have a reason,” Mohammed stated as our conversation delved into his creative process.
I immediately wanted to know if there is a logic to what artists do. Our predetermined, stereotypical thinking tends to characterize artists as lacking reason and logic. Mohammed dispelled this notion instantly – “I’m not crazy, people are not just interested in the artwork, they’re interested in your story. Especially in Kuwait.
You need to be smart in how you represent yourself.” Mohammed explained to me how selective he is about the clients he works with and the stores that sell his products. He believes that customers of the brand are an extension of the identity of the brand.
When describing his approach towards his products, I realized more and more how his business experience has influenced him strategically and the successful outcome this has had. Despite appealing to a niche clientele with his products, he believes that there is an opportunity for his work to expand and for his voice to be heard and that this is all part of his larger social responsibility as an artist to create awareness about diversity in the arts.
“I want to stay, and I want to establish my stuff here, we don’t have pop art or pop illustration. You can do anything with illustration,” Mohammed told me as he explained that his original plans to pursue his art in Japan have drastically changed over the past few years.
His renewed sense of pride paired with his unprecedented creativity propelling him towards a more inspired Kuwait. I asked him if he thought art should be disruptive and controversial, he immediately negated this and said “If you’re real, you have a million subjects to talk about. You can do anything in Kuwait.” Mohammed believes that true art does not always have to come from a place of controversy.
“Artists never stop doing what they’re doing, you can’t stop doing it if you have passion.” He explained his personal ideology when I wanted to know what a real artist is. At this point, our conversation came to a sudden but necessary stop as we were distracted by the incredibly cute baby that emerged from the corner of the café resting comfortably in her mother’s arms. I reached out to the baby with a huge smile and open arms, I was met with rejection.
Instead, she turned her attention to Mohammed who had the kindest smile on his face. He reached into his rucksack and extracted a sample patch of Cloudicorn which he handed to the baby. Her face lit up with joy upon seeing Cloudicorn, proving that art can truly transcend generations. Upon settling down from our delightful encounter with the baby and her mother, I wanted to know more about the challenges that the art community faces in Kuwait.
Mohammed told me how artists are clustered into groups based on the type of art they are doing; however, a larger holistic artist community does not exist. “We’re not going to move forward if it stays like this.” As our conversation came to an end, I wanted to learn more about what he is working on now and any advice he may have for up and coming artists. Mohammed told me about a cafe client he is currently collaborating with in Qatar who approached him due to his unique aesthetic.
The client wanted Mohammed to introduce whimsical elements to incorporate across the entire brand with a focus on food. “It was one of the best, most exciting projects I’ve ever done.” As part of this project, Mohammed is creating merchandise for the cafe, and I was awed by how his art is now accessible across multiple industries. Mohammed took a moment to reflect before sharing the advice he wants to give.
“Feel everything around you, grass, plants, everything. Appreciate the place you’re in, be grateful and give something back to the country you’re born in.”
For more information on Mohammed’s latest collaboration with the cafe, visit @cueqatar For more information on Mohammed’s work, visit @malmhna Nourah Al-Oseimi is a 25-year-old Kuwaiti who holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration.
Nourah has worked in different places such as the Central Bank of Kuwait and the United Nations. She serves as a free-lance contributing writer to the Times Kuwait – Newsmagazine. Her column – Essentially Kuwaiti – will feature an in-depth look on exceptional young Kuwaitis and their efforts towards the realization of a New Kuwait.