In his own words, Shepard Fairey’s first real foray into the region is “long overdue.” The street artist and cultural icon – who’s set to unveil Future Mosaic at Opera Gallery on 15 March – tells Grazia, “I’ve been wanting to go to the Middle East because I looked at US foreign policy, and I think conflicts of culture and a lot of things happening globally, are sometimes exaggerated for the benefit of someone’s agenda, and I have my own feelings about how universal human decency is.” True to his disruptive approach of constantly challenging our world view through his art, he adds, “I find it incredibly frustrating because I think it’s important to assess things on a human level always and not succumb to these really lazy cultural stereotypes.”

Shepard acknowledges, “Obviously, the Middle East is not monolithic – Israel is very different to Syria, which is very different to the UAE – so I want see some of it first hand for a lot of reasons: for my own perspective, and my own experience because everywhere I travel to always gives me inspiration creatively – it allows me to meet people and hear first-hand what they’re going through. Just going to Moscow a year and a half ago, I realised – even though I consider myself very open-minded – how out of step with my experience, my expectations were.”

Full disclosure: when it comes to curating Future Mosaic for an Arab audience, Shepard concedes, “One thing that I think is really important for me to be upfront about is that since I haven’t spent any time in the Middle East, the idea of how I would perfectly address aesthetic or cultural idiosyncrasies of the Middle East is just not a possibility. So, I tried to look broadly at what are the principles and aesthetics in my work that I think work for humanity. And then what are some of the things that I’ve been inspired by from the Middle East that tie into some of this work.”

Shepard will show around 150 pieces for the Opera Gallery exhibition from 15 March to 15 April. “The title, Future Mosaic, is intended to encourage the audience, rather than thinking selfishly in the present, let’s think generously with an eye on the future. So when you look at all the works in the show, there are things that I think are pretty universal. They’re not catering specifically to Dubai, because I don’t know exactly how to do that anyway, but they are putting across ideas and principles that are important to me in a way that I hope is universal enough to connect in Dubai.”

The skater-turned-street artist – who shot to subculture notoriety with his Andre the Giant sticker campaign in 1989, then achieved worldwide recognition in 2008 when the Hope poster he created of Barack Obama became the emblem of the 44th president of the United States of America’s election campaign – continues, “A lot of the work that I put in Future Mosaic, I think anyone could relate to. I try to understand the culture and the language in a way that allows me to be sensitive, but I rarely change the content or the message of what I’m saying. I might change some aspect of the delivery of that message slightly to be more in tune with a place, but since I don’t know exactly how to do that in Dubai, the way I met that challenge was to look at the work, the aesthetics in the work that I think would connect with people pretty much anywhere. I speak about things that I believe are important for the planet, and the planet needs to move to sustainables, so my hope is that that idea could connect anywhere, that anywhere that’s going to be impacted by climate change is going to look at the future.”

On the impact of Future Mosaic in the region, he reflects, “I hope that people like the imagery and then maybe consider what the ideas behind the imagery are, and it leads them to consider an issue that they might not be considering at all, or with any depth. Art has the power to be visually appealing and connect emotionally, but also create a conversation and stimulate an intellectual analysis.”

He adds, “A lot of times, people compartmentalise art as escape and then reading the newspaper or watching the news or having a debate over social media as how you navigate social issues. I like that I think my art combines the two in a way that’s fairly harmonious. And if someone looks at something they find pleasing, and then they realise that they have to wrestle with the idea and that part of it isn’t harmonious, that’s where I think we make progress – when we have those internal struggles.”

Don’t miss Future Mosaic at Opera Gallery, Dubai Gate Village, Building 3, DIFC, Dubai from 15 March to 15 April 2021. Admission is free. Call +971 04 323 0909 for enquiries

Photos: Courtesy of the artist and Opera Gallery