Urban artists Omar and Mohamed Kabbani are well known for their calligraffiti that combines Arabic calligraphy and culture with street art. But for their first exhibition in Dubai, Arab Golden Age V.2.0. the twin brothers, better known as Ashekman have experimented with a different form of art. Using recycled machine parts, they have created a series of mechanical and kinetic installations that pay tribute to Arabian culture and innovation.
“The period between the eighth and 13th centuries was the golden age of Arab civilisation when Arab inventors, scientists and philosophers paved the way for new discoveries that led to the evolution of human civilisation. We want to salute these great minds who have not got their due recognition from the world, and highlight their seminal contributions in various fields,” Omar Kabbani says.
The artists from Beirut are identical twins with identical interests and skills. They both have degrees in graphic design and studied Arabic calligraphy under master calligrapher Ali Assi. They launched Ashekman, a street art crew that specialises in calligraffiti, in Beirut in 2004.The brothers were inspired to do street art by the Lebanese civil war graffiti that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s on the streets of Beirut. They were among the early ones to use Arabic calligraphy in street art with the aim of reviving Arabian culture in a modern urban context. They are now based in Dubai and have a studio in Dubai Design District (d3).
“Ashekman is Lebanese street slang for the exhaust pipe of a car, and we chose this name because everything we do is related to street culture and to the Arabic language. It is also symbolic of our work because just as the ashekman releases the dirt from a car, the positive and thought provoking messages in our street art help to release the tensions in our society. By using Arabic calligraphy in Ashekman’s street art, paintings and clothing line we wanted to show young people how beautiful it is and to instil in them pride for our Arab culture. We are happy that Maximilian Büsser, founder of MB & F M.A.D. gallery, which specialises in mechanical art devices, liked our work and encouraged us to experiment with mechanical and kinetic art. We have enjoyed translating our ideas into three dimensional forms,” Mohamed Kabbani says.
The artists have created five unique mechanical art pieces, each telling a story about this region. The materials they have used were bought from a scrapyard and include parts from old cars, computers and other machines. While some artworks celebrate pioneering Arab scientists, others are inspired by Arabian philosophy and literature.
A work titled Rise pays tribute to Abbas Ibn Farnas, an inventor, physician, chemist, engineer, musician and poet from Andalusia. He is known for making the first successful attempt at human flight in the eighth century, so the artists have created a mechanical version of a ‘flying carpet’ with two halves of an Arabian carpet attached like wings to a central mechanical portion comprising various machine parts. The work comments on Western misconceptions about the Arab world, while reminding us of Arab achievements that have been forgotten or ignored.
Another work, Proceed is dedicated to Ismail Al Jazari, a gifted mechanical engineer from the 10th century, who is considered to be the father of robotics. This gold plated piece features mechanical gears on which is carved the phrase ‘Time is Gold’ in Arabic calligraphy, conveying the message that time is valuable and no culture can flourish if it does not respect time.
Other pieces titled Protect and Plan are designed to remind young Arabs not to forget the richness of the Arabic language and the scientific spirit of the past as they move towards the future. Protect is a hand shaped piece that refers to ‘Hamsa’ the hand of Fatima and the hand of Miriam, which dates back to Mesopotamia. A bionic robot eye in the centre of the hand carries the message ‘preserve your past to protect the future’. In Plan the words ‘time is like a sword, if you don’t cut it, it will end up cutting you’ are laser cut on the blades of a chain saw, creating a literal metaphor of an old Arab proverb and a stark warning for Arab youth.
Ashekman have often used the Japanese anime cartoon character Grendizer as a symbol in their street art. For this show they have created a work, Lead featuring the Grendizer’s head made from various mechanical parts.
“Grendizer is our childhood hero, and we have grown up watching him fight evil villains on television. We put him in our work on streets around the world because he is the kind of leader the world needs today. In this piece, we have constructed the Grendizer’s head with hundreds of small mechanical parts to express the idea that no leader can survive without the support of his people,” the artists say.
Incidentally, it was Ashekman’s Grendizer graffiti on a wall in Dubai that led to their first solo exhibition of mechanical art at M.A.D. gallery. Büsser says, “Two years ago I came across an incredible Grendizer calligraffiti in the Al Fahidi Neighbourhood that left me transfixed. Growing up I was fascinated by Grendizer, and I have always incorporated an element of him in the watches I design. To see it here in Dubai was a great surprise and I wanted to meet the artist behind it. Thus started my fascination with the Ashekman collection. Not only are they incredibly talented but the philosophy driving them is rare and we are extremely proud to offer them a platform for their first ever mechanical art preview.”
Since it is impossible to find identical parts in a heap of scrap, none of the artworks in this show can be exactly replicated, and hence each piece is unique. The dirty, aged look of the pieces adds to the beauty and gravity of the works. And every piece bears the signature of Ashekman in the form of a ‘shaddeh’ carved into the metal.
“We did not clean the dirt, rust and oil on the parts because we wanted our mechanical artworks to also have the grungy look of street art. The shaddeh is a punctuation mark used to accentuate a vowel, and we use it as a signature to accentuate our position on various issues because we believe that we can create a positive change in our society through art,” the artists say.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.
Arab Golden Age V.2.0. will run at MB & F M.A.D. Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, until March 10.