x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Toying with art

Saloon A local designer gives birth to a doll that is a 'blank 3-D canvas.

Mohammed Abedin with his Mega toy.
Mohammed Abedin with his Mega toy.

A local designer gives birth to a doll that is a 'blank 3-D canvas. A few weeks ago, a careless local artist dropped Mohammed Abedin's baby on its head. Abedin recalled the incident last week, sitting on the roof of the Mazaya Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road, where he has an apartment. "Nothing happened," he said, running his thumb back and forth over a ding in the back of the baby's head. "It's OK." A moment later, the head came off in Abedin's hand. That was OK, too. Abedin's "baby" is actually the prototype of a doll, and its bulbous, oversized head is meant to be removable - as are its arms, ears and the cone-shaped rocket pack on its back. The doll's name is Mega, and Abedin has spent the better part of the last year designing it, marketing it and establishing a base for its manufacture in China. The doll doesn't look like much - it stands 20cms high, is uniformly white and utterly featureless but for a slight bump where the nose is supposed to be. According to Abedin, though, Mega is set to usher in a minor revolution in the UAE arts community. "This really is my baby," he said. "I gave birth to him."

Abedin, 22, is a self-described "urban artist," a term that's hard to pin down but which encompasses stuff like graffiti, stickers and pavement stencils. He is the co-founder, along with his partner Prathibha Edirisuriya, of the arts collaborative Foo Dog, which has been around since 2008. The idea behind the collaborative is to foster a stable of regional talent who create limited editions of their work - ranging from posters and screensavers to toys and apparel - which will then be sold under the Foo Dog name. It's an updated version of Andy Warhol's Factory, which used mass production techniques sparingly, in order to drive up the value of the work produced.

Mega is by far Abedin's most ambitious project to date. The doll, which is constructed from durable resin, is meant to represent more than just a toy. "Look at him," Abedin said, holding the figure up. "He's completely white, he doesn't have a story, a personality or an attitude. He's a blank 3-D canvas, a different kind of medium for artists. They'll buy him and customise him and either display him or sell him off. It's DIY art." He added: "The irony of Mega is, the guy's so small, but I believe he'll have a huge impact on people."

Abedin, who is half Emirati and half Thai, doesn't immediately come across as the guerrilla artist type. Dressed in a floor-length khandoura and dark glasses, he revealed (reluctantly) that his background is in finance: he studied business management at Dubai Men's College and currently works in a bank. But he has always been drawn to the arts, he said, even as a boy (for a while, he dabbled in comic book illustration, but became bored by the repetition). His current work was inspired by a school trip to Tokyo in 2007, and the playful, Manga-themed design he encountered there. Today, he sees himself as a kind of pioneer. "Mega is the first designer toy to be made by an Emirati," he said. "This is a big thing."

While Abedin would like to focus exclusively on his art at some point, he's not giving up the day job just yet. Sales at his Foo Dog enterprise have so far been sluggish, and only a few artists have signed up. "This is self-funded," he said. "I've sunk a lot of money into this and I've yet to break even." He is confident, though, that his little white doll will be the turning point. He unveiled the product at an event in town yesterday, and plans to start selling Mega (for Dh150 per item) at a larger event in April. "This is my big break," he said. "I'm releasing the first designer toy here, and I want to see a queue outside my shop. The vision I have in my head is of a cult following."

When reminded that he might not be in the best city to launch an underground revolution - Dubai circa 2010, after all, is a far cry from Warhol's New York - Abedin insisted that this fact only heightens his enthusiasm. "This is what I'm trying to change," he said. "What I'm trying to do is something completely new. This is meant to encourage people to be a bit more daring. There are a lot of dormant people out there who want to do stuff." He added, "The whole point is to promote urban art here, then move across the Arab region, then maybe go a bit further with international artists. This is just a huge dream for me. It's crazy."

Abedin doesn't sleep much these days, he said. In addition to everything else, he's been conducting a persistent teaser campaign on Facebook and Twitter in recent months, in order to drum up interest in his "mystery project". As he put his Mega prototype into a special box, which had been lined with a fluffy towel, he recalled treating his mother to a sneak preview of the toy. "She looked at it and said, 'What the hell is that?'"

* Chris Wright