x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Designer and pop artist Maria Iqbal on her artistry

The pop artist and furniture designer Maria Iqbal talks about her passions, creativity and inspirations.

Above, as a pinboard in her Al Quoz studio reveals, she is inspired by all forms of popular culture, from TV shows and movies to fashion illustrations, blogs, magazines and gossip sites. Razan Alzayani / The National
Above, as a pinboard in her Al Quoz studio reveals, she is inspired by all forms of popular culture, from TV shows and movies to fashion illustrations, blogs, magazines and gossip sites. Razan Alzayani / The National

Maria Iqbal is sitting on the floor of her Al Quoz studio surrounded by the pop-art chairs, tote bags and cushion covers that she has spent the last year lovingly creating. On the table in front of her is a jumble of fabrics, an industrial-sized pair of scissors and containers full of oversized buttons - just some of the tools of her new-found trade.

Born in Afghanistan and raised in Dubai, Iqbal spent 10 years working in the advertising industry in the US and India before returning to the UAE a year ago to launch her eponymous furniture and accessories brand.

"I didn't know I was going to like Dubai as much as I do," she says. "Everyone was telling me it's where creative people go to die; that there's no inspiration here. But I've found the opposite. I've found that it's a place where they are really encouraging art and anything new and anybody that wants to do something new."

It was the year spent living in India that gave Iqbal the courage to follow her artistic aspirations. She had always been good at art but, coming from a traditional Afghan background, had never really considered it as a viable career option. And although advertising was "a fantastic career for a creative person", it did not, ultimately, offer the artistic fulfilment that Iqbal craved.

"I had a very safe, comfortable nine years in Chicago but I knew deep down that I wasn't happy and there was always something else that I wanted to do with my art. The question was how to translate my obsession with pop culture? I grew up reading and watching everything I could find and I was always fascinated by what was happening in the entertainment world.

"I moved to Mumbai from the US and continued to work in advertising. That's where I blossomed. I was always scared of doing my own thing before that. I was always scared that I might fail or that I might not be any good. And I think that's a reflection of what was happening in the States. It was all about the fear - everybody was holding on to their jobs and nobody wanted to do anything entrepreneurial.

"Then you go to India where there's so much money being thrown around. And you have this really young population and all this stuff going on and everyone was saying: 'What are you doing? Go and explore your art; go make things; do your own thing'."

So she did just that. Heavily influenced by popular culture, her aim was to combine pop and art, using furniture as a canvas. Returning to Dubai meant that she would have easy access to the tailors, upholsterers, carpenters and painters who would help her transform her designs into reality.

She started experimenting with high-quality Italian chairs and other large furniture pieces, then moved on to smaller accessories such as cushions and tote bags. The results are lined up in her studio for all to see - rows of chairs emblazoned with skulls, eyes, hearts, oversized lips and cows; stacks of quirky cushions covered in oversized moustaches and bird motifs; and racks of tote bags in every conceivable colour.

"I'm not an artist who likes to sit by herself and paint," she says. "I'm not an 'artiste'. I want to make things that make me happy and I want to share that happiness. I'm very influenced by fashion illustration, by TV shows and by movies. I'm not the kind of person that listens to music while I work. I have TV shows playing.

"What's happening currently is constantly playing in my head. That's what I'm really influenced by. I read a lot of blogs, gossip sites and magazines. I love Indian Vogue and Italian Vogue; I read it all, whether I understand it or not. I don't just go into my brain and isolate myself. For me, my inspiration comes from being out there."

Iqbal does recognise that her "trippy" pop-art style isn't for everybody. "There's a lot of people saying: 'This is fun', but they just like to admire it. Some people might want me to tone it down. And that's fine. As long as I feel like I am doing something that's me, I can take it up or down a notch, depending on people's tastes."

She has also received a lot of support and positive feedback, she says. She has pieces displayed in Dubai's More Café and O Concept boutique and has been participating in local festivals and exhibitions, including the chocolate-inspired fundraiser Chocol'art Dubai, where she created a candy bowl bed complete with Smarties cushions. She is also now in talks with a number of retail outlets that are interested in stocking her products and will begin mass-producing certain lines to keep up with demand.

Nonetheless, her ultimate desire is to keep creating custom-made products for individually minded clients. She is already getting requests for dining sets where every chair is different and is eager to work with clients to create a highly personal piece for their home. She is happy to provide the furniture pieces or people can bring their own, which Iqbal will decorate for as little as Dh2,000. "My dream is for people to come into the studio and for us to come up with ideas together. What really excites me is doing unique, one-off pieces."