Wasel Safwan prefers his transport unadorned. "When I buy a car, I don't like to put anything on it, even on the glass," the Emirati painter explains. "I was always the person who was against putting anything on the car." And yet here is Safwan, standing on a podium outside the Ferrari store in Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, having just spent an evening subjecting a life-size replica of a Formula One racer to his trademark painterly style.
He calls it "UAEism", a jagged, brightly coloured school of abstraction which is intended to evoke the diversity and promise of life in the Emirates. You might have seen his work featured in this year's Emirati Expressions show at the Emirates Palace: giant canvases traversed by splashy trails of paint. Usually the edge of the canvas is as far as those trails go. Still, the Grand Prix is coming to town and, in the spirit of diversity and promise, Safwan let himself be persuaded to join in the programme of festivities.
"When they told me to do this, it was not like: 'Yes, let me do it'," he confesses. "I told them, maybe someone can do it better than me, because I've never done something like that and I don't want them to lose this opportunity." In fact, other artists are also getting their turn. The all-female art collective Mizmah have been working on a car of their own at Zayed University. Other artists scheduled to participate in The Art of Racing later this month are Dana Saif al Mazrouei, Jalal Luqman and Khalid Mezaina.
Still, the event organisers persevered with Safwan. "They kept explaining, and they really wanted me to be involved and just to use my style," he recalls. "I said OK, I will use my style. I will not change." At the time of writing it's difficult to say what the results will be: Safwan had spent just the first evening of four working on the project. But his signature swirls and bands of colour were indeed unchanged. And apparently the state of visionary absorption in which the artist prefers to work was not compromised by the presence of curious shoppers.
"Some moments, I forgot who was around me," he says. "I forgot that I'm painting the car. I just focused on the lines and looking from different angles, how to connect these lines together. And I tried to hear the wheels, you know?" Safwan came to motor racing late in life. "When I was a child I used to go with my uncle to camel races," he says. "Later on we started to like car races... We used to watch it on TV. I'd never seen a Formula One race car before. And all of a sudden, I am painting one."
This has not been without its challenges. "It's different shapes!" he exclaims. "It's like speed shapes, sharp shapes. There are some curves but it's built for speed. I used to paint on objects but it's my first time to paint on a car." All the same, he trusts that inspiration will come. "It's unconscious," he says. "When I finish it, I will know that I did not create it; I just discovered it. It was somewhere else and it's now here. From a psychological point of view, I never create anything. I just discover it and attract it and make it real to our eyes."
And he knew where he had to start. "When I came in the beginning I said: 'What should be the first touch?' I said the first touch I should do is to write Abu Dhabi." And so, across the car's rear spoiler is emblazoned the name of Safwan's home emirate. He wants to make sure it's visible from every angle, so that any photographs unambiguously commemorate the home of the first UAE Grand Prix. For his part, however, Safwan is not content to stop at decorating cars. He used to be an architect and wants to see UAEism displayed on an even grander canvas.
"I would be happy in the future if I could paint a tower," he says. "If they give me a tower, I could paint the whole tower." Anybody with a spare one is invited to get in touch. The Art of Racing continues throughout October. See www.yasalam.ae for details.