Dubai: This Syrian artist uses cities around the world as her canvas

Dina Saadi, who has painted over 150 murals in more than 30 cities globally, on how street art helps bring diverse communities together

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Somya Mehta

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Published: Sun 7 Jan 2024, 5:26 PM

Last updated: Sun 7 Jan 2024, 6:09 PM

Born in Moscow and raised in Syria, Dina Saadi discovered a passion for art from a very young age. As a hyperactive child, her mother observed that the only things capable of holding her attention for extended periods were paper and colouring pens. This creative outlet allowed her mum to manage other tasks while Saadi was engrossed in drawing, sometimes for hours.

Saadi’s earliest memory of creating art dates back to when she was only three years old, drawing what she called a "potato" – scribbling overlapped circles on paper. “From the moment I was handed my first set of pencils, I became wholly absorbed in drawing, a big contrast to my otherwise active and boisterous nature,” she recounts.

“Growing up in a family that appreciated art, I was fortunate to be enrolled in various art activities and courses every summer, exposing me to diverse artistic techniques—painting on glass, using oil, acrylics, pastels, and exploring various art forms. However, the limited art education within my schools posed a challenge, often providing minimal exposure,” says Saadi.

A few years after her move to Dubai in 2012, Saadi began experimenting with different painting styles, including spray paint, attending art workshops, travelling around, until she finally discovered her medium of choice—large, blank walls as canvases. “My first significant mural opportunity arose in Cairo, Egypt in 2015, as I participated in the ‘Women on Walls’ festival. After doing that mural I felt I had what it takes to paint big walls, I was more confident and was so eager to get even bigger walls to paint,” says Saadi.

Having painted over 150 murals in more than 30 cities globally, the Syrian street artist has actively participated in various art festivals and global projects, including Long Beach Walls in 2019 and 2023, All Caps Festival in Rotterdam, Meeting of Styles, Baladk Festival, Amman among others.

The murals created by Saadi exhibit diversity in size. While some are small or medium, her largest mural measures around 35 metres in length, and the tallest one reaches approximately 15 metres in height.

The artist's works have also been showcased in various prominent locations in Dubai, including the entrance of Building 5 in Dubai Design District and the amphitheatre seating at Marina Walk. In these areas, three distinct artworks—a meticulously designed turtle, a vibrant fish, and a delicate jellyfish—have been crafted by the artist, collectively measuring around 40 metres.

An interactive mural created by Saadi can also be found within the Time Out Market at Souq Al Bahar. Visitors have the opportunity to scan a QR code, enabling them to experience an augmented reality animation of the mural on their phones. Another one of her murals, inspired by the captivating marine life in the UAE, is situated along the beachfront in Khor Fakkan.

“Of course, compared to the number of public murals I have outside of the UAE, the public murals I've painted here are not many because public spaces are not very accessible to paint and would require a lengthy process of government approvals. However, I would love to create more public murals in Dubai and the UAE because here is where this whole fascinating journey started for me,” says Saadi, adding that the city has been an instrumental force when it comes to her artworks.

“Beyond just finding inspiration, Dubai has provided opportunities that have truly propelled my art forward,” says the artist. “While diversity is just a buzzword in most places, the unique mix of cultures and perspectives in Dubai is exceptionally inspiring and stands out. I firmly believe that artists thrive when exposed to a wide range of people, cultures and ideas. We function as explorers in a way, seeking diverse viewpoints to create impactful and innovative work. We must embrace different perspectives, shedding biases to see the world with fresh eyes. That's how we, as artists, can create profound and groundbreaking art,” Saadi adds.

Over time, the street artist, known for her vibrant and bold aesthetics, has transitioned away from using defined outlines in her work, leaning towards more organic and fluid shapes. “Lately, I've been exploring psychedelic elements and different colour combinations, leading to diverse colour variations reminiscent of heat maps, adding a dynamic and new element to my art,” says Saadi.

But how does an artist learn the chops to create mural art? “The initial step in creating mural art often begins with mastering the fundamentals of art on a smaller scale,” says Saadi. “For me, transitioning from canvas to large-scale murals wasn't too daunting. Once you're adept at creating art on smaller canvases, the transition to larger surfaces becomes more manageable.”

However, there are some fundamental differences between canvas and mural art in terms of techniques. “On smaller scales, freestyle sketching is more feasible but working on a larger scale, that can be more challenging for beginners due to the proximity to the wall. Artists employ different techniques to overcome this challenge,” she adds.

“Mural painting also presents unique challenges, such as weather conditions, logistics and timelines. Weather plays a significant role, as painting outdoors becomes impractical during adverse conditions. Windy conditions limit the use of lifts for reaching greater heights. Safety concerns, including people's safety and environmental conditions, must also be carefully considered.”

According to the artist, another aspect that is often overlooked is the public nature of mural creation. “Working in a studio provides privacy and a comfort zone, whereas public painting invites interaction, documentation and observation. Not all artists thrive in this scenario. While some excel with an audience, others might feel inhibited or uncomfortable, impacting their workflow and pace,” says Saadi.

Despite all the obvious challenges, painting over many murals across the world has been an incredible journey for the artist. “Though, it’s not come without its challenges—physical strain, occasional stress, fatigue or injury—it's my absolute passion,” says Saadi. “Travelling has broadened my perspective, connecting me to different lives and stories, inspiring my art and enriching my human experience,” says Saadi.

“From encounters with people to unusual situations like navigating through a night in Paris with a dead phone, chasing a thief in London or being stuck on a lift. Each experience, although challenging at times, holds a special place in my heart,” says the artist, adding that she hopes to inspire the next generation of female artists and change-makers in the Middle East and her home country Syria, to follow their dreams and choose to live a brave and unapologetic creative path. “Seeing my murals years later, some still untouched, while staying in touch with those communities, fills me with gratitude for this incredibly rewarding but challenging journey.”

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