x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Habtoor opens doors with his T-shirt slogans

Mohammed Sultan al Habtoor is known for his T-shirts, or 'situational art', and his work is represented in the A-lounge of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Mohammed Sultan al Habtoor is known for his T-shirts, or 'situational art'.
Mohammed Sultan al Habtoor is known for his T-shirts, or 'situational art'.

There's nothing like a bit of controversy to raise awareness of an issue, and that's something Mohammed Sultan al Habtoor knows all about. It is thanks to his statement T-shirts ("Leave Lamees Alone", "I'm Karl's Next Muse", "No Cash? No Oil? Who Cares?" and so on) that have he and his company, House of GlaMO (which he runs with his friend Tamara al Gabbani), attracting fans in the UAE and as far afield as New York and London, as well as receiving commissions from local companies looking for a punchy marketing tool.

His work is represented in the A-lounge, the celebrity gifting suite at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where a reusable bag (originally designed for the Sharjah recycling company Bee'ah) declares in giant letters that "Green Is Good". The Abu Dhabi Media Company, which publishes The National, has also called on his services, asking him to design this year's company Pink October T-shirt.

With success such as that, it's no surprise his current favourite pastime is challenging the views and statements of what he calls "the media and propaganda".

It all started just a year ago, when the Emirati Dr Lamees Hamdan came under fire in the UAE for her remarks on The Oprah Show about Dubai. The furore inspired al Habtoor to create his now-famous "Leave Lamees Alone (She Will Pay Our Bills)" T-shirt, the proceeds of which went to a local charity. But this wasn't just a T-shirt, says al Habtoor: it's situational art.

"It's basically taking serious issues, whether they're nationwide or international, and adding a little bit of humour, to keep it a little bit lighthearted, for people to understand it a little bit more. All in all, I'm never with or against what you see on a finished product: there's always a little bit of a twist in there. I always keep the audience wondering what it's all about. Although it is very clear and forward and in-your-face, I leave the audience to have a bit of imagination, to wonder what it's about and have their own theory on what they see."

It's not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a man who trained as an army officer at Sandhurst in the UK, and who completed a degree in political science. And while al Habtoor has always loved the arts, visiting museums and galleries around the world - "I'm still hungry for art every day," he insists - it was only in the wake of the Lamees controversy that he realised he had hit on something big.

"It happened overnight with the Lamees T-shirt and I thought, OK, this is fun - it seems to have created some sort of debate, and you know, that's a good thing. At first, some people were not really happy, but the majority came to an understanding towards it at the end and realised there is something special."

Of course, it helps that al Habtoor has been a fixture on Dubai's fashion and art scene for some years, with his own fan base of influential hipsters, and he acknowledges the part that has played in his career. "Of course, being a public figure could help, so I had a following before I even started those T-shirts. In a way, I do feel like there has to be a story behind it - there has to be a personality behind it and there has to be a following behind it for it to be successful. I am blessed. But I think it's all about luck, and had I done it a little bit wrong, or a little bit later than I was supposed to, I don't think it would have succeeded."

Luckily, he got the tone just right, and the limited run of Pink October T-shirts go down the same route: a simple, funny spotlight on a serious issue. Reversing the traditional pink ribbon colours, the pink T-shirt bears two somewhat cheekily placed white ribbons.

"My brief was to be as controversial as I could be," says al Habtoor, "so I came up with a few ideas, but I think they went for the more simple message. We wanted to keep it a little bit light, a little bit naughty. I don't think there would be a problem [wearing it] because there is a cause behind it. And at the end of the day the message is quite clear: it's about breast cancer - it does exist, it is deadly and every single woman should get checked. I don't see that there is any issue with it at all."

It could certainly be seen as taboo-breaking, though, and that is something al Habtoor seems cautiously proud of, both with regard to the T-shirts and to his role as an artist.

"I would like to think that, yes, I have opened doors for people from my generation- the one ahead of me and the one that's coming - for them to be able to create and do things over the edge and outside of the box. I'm not so much of an ambassador. But I like to think I've opened locked doors."

* Gemma Champ