Artist Sasan Nasernia’s best-known artwork is plastered across a billboard on Sheikh Zayed Road but his conceptual calligraphy is proving highly collectable, says Kevin Hackett.
Reaching for the sky
Even if his name is unfamiliar, you’re likely to recognise some of his work if you’ve driven along Sheikh Zayed Road through Dubai in recent weeks. An enormous roadside billboard with a black background and overlaid swirling Arabic calligraphy, which erupts into vibrant blue and red hues to spell out DKNY, has been prominently positioned in full view of millions since the beginning of August. And it’s all his work.
When the fashion brand DKNY was planning its latest advertising campaign, it turned to local artists to represent 10 different cities. There was no competition or portfolio submission to earn the highly prized contract, rather the New-York based subsidiary of Donna Karan tracked down the artists it wanted to work with on its celebrated Artworks project and, for Dubai and Kuwait, Nasernia was the chosen representative.
“I have no idea how they found me, but that’s the way of the internet,” says Nasernia. “They called me up, told me they wanted to work with me and soon we were brainstorming ideas. DKNY’s advertising agency had been involved with art-based campaigns in the past, so it was a very smooth process. The art director set the parameters with colour, et cetera, and I got to work.”
Born in Tehran in 1974, Nasernia is a conceptual calligraphy painter but his art has taken time to evolve. Naserina studied digital typography at Azad Art University in Tehran, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and fine art. Later, he says, he developed a kind of “vocabulary” from the deconstruction of traditional typography and experimenting with graphic design, calligraphy and painting.
Upon graduation, however, he worked in the more traditional field of commercial graphic design. “It took me a while to realise that I had deviated from the path which I had envisaged for my artistic career,” he says.
“I had merely become a corporate graphic designer and this dawning realisation occurred at the same time that I relocated to Dubai in 2004.
“I decided to start distancing myself from the computer in favour of using traditional tools, making canvases and papers instead of pixels and vectors.”
Naserina still takes on corporate graphic design to pay the bills – “bread and butter work,” as he puts it – but his artistic vocation lies elsewhere. He taught himself how to paint and transferred his interest in deconstructed typography to calligraphy.
“The calligraphy is usually indecipherable and this allows me to make statements that can be interpreted in multiple ways, just like many other art forms,” he explains.
Of the DKNY collaboration, he says: “I looked at the billboard as a platform for cultural dialogue and exchange. In my opinion it could act as a background on which two vibrant and colourful cultures could interact and mingle together. To achieve that, I translated the world-famous slogan ‘I love NY’ into Arabic and also added ‘I love Dubai’ to it. So from one side of the artwork, ‘I love NY’ and from other side ‘I love Dubai’ would enter the stage and start to interact in the middle of the frame.”
The result was juxtaposed in both vertical and horizontal formats to suit the dedicated locations on Al Durrah tower in Dubai and the hoarding on Sheikh Zayed Road. Another location later was added for Kuwait City, for which “I love Kuwait” was specifically worked into the piece.
Nasernia has no idea how this new-found fame is going to effect on his life. “It’s only been a few weeks since the billboards were put up, so it’s too early to say what will happen, but I have an exhibition planned for later this year in Dubai. I suppose that will be when I can properly gauge the public’s reaction.”
So far, he has put on 10 different exhibitions, both in Dubai and Tehran, where he says sales have been extremely healthy. The Middle Eastern aesthetic of his work is extremely popular with local audiences and the artworks’ “unique” status has pleased collectors keen to discover another lucrative prize.
“Art is a growing area in this region,” he says. “And I’m extremely happy to be playing a part in that growth. As my work becomes better known, it draws attention to other local artists too, which can only be a good thing.”
Naserina currently works on a grand scale; his canvases measure 170 centimetres square – somewhat ambitious for the average two-bedroom Dubai apartment – but he’s considering producing runs of limited edition prints to reach a wider audience.
“As is the case for nearly everyone, the path was not easy for me and it still isn’t,” he says. “When I had the daytime job as a graphic designer, I had to use my spare time in my very small apartment to wrestle with canvases.
“I like working on large pieces and at times it proved difficult to live and work in the same tiny flat. However, after nearly 10 years of work, things are slowly but surely moving in my desired direction and the payoffs are coming along.”
He says he’s looking forward to showcasing his work in Europe and the US as well, “to give the western audience a hint of my style of combining and mixing the old and new. Thinking global with roots in my culture and history always fascinates me.”
Kevin Hackett is a features writer for The National.