Clad in Bedouin attire from head to toe, “Sheikh” William of Arabia is smiling, seemingly content with having swapped Kensington Palace for a humble tent and camels.
American singing sensation Beyoncé, meanwhile, covered in a black veil, serves Arabic coffee, and the king of pop Michael Jackson swaps his piano for the oud.
Welcome to the world of Saudi digital artist Mohannad Al Osaimi, a Riyadh-based electrical engineer, who describes himself as being “obsessed with Western pop culture.”
That obsession has earned Al Osaimi young fans in the Middle East, who appreciate his talent for re-imagining iconic Western celebrities in a comic Bedouin context.
Bringing two extremes together
Al Osaimi grew up in Al Duwadimi, a small town west of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he says life is more conservative and influenced by Bedouin norms than in the country’s big cities.
The 24-year-old says being exposed to Western pop culture through American media on satellite TV, international brands and merchandise, and the conservative norms of his small town, became the foundation and inspiration of his work.
“My cousins and friends would tell me that drawing the veil on the head of a non-Muslim singer or celebrity is haram (forbidden). However, this is not how I perceive the veil; it is a cultural symbol to me,” Al Osaimi tells CNN, in a telephone interview.
Al Osaimi’s designs are impressive not just for the quality of their execution, but for their attention to detail — global pop icons transform so seamlessly into the Bedouin world, it is hard to imagine they ever belonged anywhere else.
“My favorite Western celebrity to depict is Adele, whom I have shown in many designs,” Al Osaimi says.
One of those designs depicts the British singer in the posture and signature hairstyle of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, a 20th century classic music sensation across the Middle East.
From passion to business
Aside from pop stars, Al Osaimi has given “Saudi” treatments to famous Western movie posters, politicians including American president Donald Trump, and the iconic “Yes we can!” wartime propaganda poster.
He posts his creations on Instagram, where he has 12,000 followers. What started as a passion project has become a business.
“I would get requests from people asking me to sell them high resolution versions of my designs, which they would use to decorate objects,” says Al Osaimi.
“I partnered with one of my friends to set up a website that serves as a selling platform for merchandise,” adds Al Osaimi, who maintains his day job with an international corporation in Riyadh. His website “Scribble” sells T-shirts, mugs, and phone cases, and Al Osaimi says its main customers are Saudis and nationals from the neighboring Persian Gulf states. Al Osaimi dreams of going global but says his artwork is not political.
“I do not have a message when designing,” he says. “It is just a passion that resonated with people.”
A nation at a crossroads
Saudi Arabia is at an interesting crossroads.
As the oil-rich state attempts to diversify and open up its economy as a hub for business, investment, and travel, under the Vision 2030 strategy, one of the challenges is rebranding Saudi internationally. Artists like Al Osaimi are helping to update that image of Saudi Arabia, by promoting its rich, witty cultural tapestry.
Fida Al Hussan, a 32-year-old digital artist, is part of a wave of young Saudi artists — spanning the fields of multimedia digital art, fashion, and cinema — who grew up surrounded by Western pop culture but want to create art that is close to their mother culture.
Best known internationally as the creative director of satirical music video “Hwages,” which attracted more than 16 million views in 8 months for its critique of the patriarchy in Saudi Arabia, on Instagram her digital art — which draws on Arabic calligraphy — has earned her more than 50,000 followers. She frequently portrays the faces or heads of white women decorated with flags of Arab countries, or Arabic letters and oriental designs.
“When I make a design, I do it because I have a feeling that I want to portray, not a message per se,” says Al Hussan, who has professional background in advertising and marketing, “and my character is a woman because I am mostly showing the state of mind that I am in.”
In one of her designs, she depicts a woman wearing the burqa as well as an astronaut’s helmet.
“Through this design, I wanted to tell Saudi women that they can do anything.”
Abdallah Al Harthy, a freelance artist who specializes in animation and film effects, was among the first Saudis to use digital art to imagine famous celebrities as Arabs, back in 2010.
“The idea came to me after I saw pictures of celebrities who visited our region and tried to wear the shemagh (headdress for men), yet never mastered it,” Alharthy recalls.
“I asked myself, how about I dress them myself?”
Log on to this 26-year-old’s Instagram account, and you’ll find pictures of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Kevin Spacey, and even Canadian rapper Drake, wearing Saudi attire.
“The pictures attracted attention beyond what I expected,” says Al Harthy, “and this made me want to employ them for a bigger cause.”
Al Harthy aimed to make his designs a depiction of the “good Arab.”
“In Western cinema, the person wearing the Arab attire is always depicted as a bad person, a terrorist,” says Al Harthy.
“By showing celebrities looking stylish in our attire, I am showing the world an alternative image for the ‘bad’ Arab they are used to seeing.”