Street art has been thriving in the UAE over the last few years with Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman in particular giving local and international artists opportunities to showcase their work in public spaces.
Street art is a wonderful way of brightening up our urban environment and providing colour where there was once only industrial monochromacy. Murals and public art pieces draw visitors and tourists from further afield and has the potential to transform neighbourhoods as was the case in 2016 with Karama in Dubai - one of the first mass street art projects in the nation - with no less than 24 murals displayed on old commercial buildings in Karama Souq.
Graffiti is usually an illegal affair with risks of fines and even prison time, but street art in the UAE is always arranged with official cooperation from the authorities, however the playground for street artists in the UAE still remains relatively small. There is simply a finite number of walls to paint when you consider the impact of visibility, creativity, location, etc.
A place exists out there, however, where street artists can roam free with their spray cans and paint rollers. Earlier this year Inloco Gallery from Dubai launched "Useless Palace”, a virtual exhibition project inviting visitors to explore three exhibition ares in the Metaverse: a display hall, a desert, and a village.
Algerian street artist Abderrahmene Salah, who goes by his creative title Lokher, visited the UAE to take part in this unique virtual project.
“I will never be moving away from the street, but that doesn’t stop me from trying new technologies,” he says. “I am always excited to try new mediums and ways of sharing my work. The metaverse was certainly an interesting experience, but in my eyes, nothing compares to the physical experience of painting. With that being said, I am open to the idea of working within a medium as new and interesting as the metaverse, which might change my opinion about it.”
Salah’s creative roots go back to a childhood spent growing up in the vibrant Algiers neighbourhood of Kouba where he was exposed to a diverse environment.
“My neighbourhood was merely a playground and home to me until I developed an interest in art. That’s when my relationship with it took a significant turn, and it became a source of inspiration, shaping my vision of the world through art,” he says. “Through this new lens, I began to notice aspects of life that I had never suspected before. It all began with observing my neighbourhood. Despite growing up, Kouba remained an open-air playground. Al-Warcha is where we used to skip classes to play football, and later, it became the place where I created my first mural in Kouba. Years later, I returned to this familiar space, knowing it was the only safe place for street art, still illegal and frowned upon in Algeria back then.”
There was never any doubt in Salah’s mind that his first mural would be in Kouba since the neighbourhood always held a special place in his heart, but when the right moment arrived in 2020 Salah was taken somewhat by surprise.
“I was bursting with excitement,” he remembers. “I didn’t have a concrete plan or idea in mind beforehand, but I grabbed some paint and called up my artist buddies to join me in this creative adventure. I just let my creativity flow freely, and the mural came to life spontaneously.
“The artwork became a reflection of my passion for art and my love for Kouba. It was my way of expressing how I see the world through art. Seeing the positive response from the community and how it resonated with people inspired me to keep going.”
For Salah, visiting the UAE and witnessing the local street art scene has been a special experience and he has ambitions to work here again.
“I loved the experience so much,” he says. “It was one of the most exciting and enriching endeavours of my career. It pushed me to outdo myself and my limits, because of the time limitations I had, but also the environment and the people I was surrounded with. Inloco and the artists that worked on the ‘Useless Palace’ exhibition were so welcoming that I felt like I knew them for ages. Finding these people made me realise that wherever I am, I will be linked to people through art, and made me grasp the universality of that language. What was at first a simple unexpected invitation from a gallery to exhibit, ended up being a unique creative journey.”