Twin brothers Omar and Mohamed Kabbani grew up during Lebanon's civil war, but it only made them more determined to share messages of peace while promoting Arabic calligraphy through their graffiti
"Time is like a sword - if you don't cut it, it will cut you," Omar Kabbani said during a short meeting a month ago. He was holding one of his more unique exhibits - a chainsaw that had Arabic calligraphy running along the blade - and was explaining the meaning behind it. "You have to respect time or it will come back to haunt you," he said.
We were at M.A.D Gallery in Al Quoz where Ashekman, the Arabic street art crew founded by identical Lebanese twin brothers Omar and Mohamed Kabbani, was to launch its first solo exhibit. Since M.A.D Gallery houses mostly horological work, all of Ashekman's new creations had a common theme - time. Every piece, which Omar lovingly handled and explained, was made of metal, laser cut to perfection, and had spray paint splatter.
"That's because of our background as street artists," explained Omar "We wanted everything to have our touch on it, that grungy effect. It's mechanical art mixed with street art. All the pieces are drawn from 8th, 9th and 10th century scientists from Arabic countries. We wanted to remind people about the ancient time of prosperity, science and innovation from Arabic countries. We are trying to pay our respects."
I had hoped to meet both the brothers but found that rather hard. Apparently, this is commonplace for the founders of Ashekman. "We believe in the divide and conquer policy," joked Omar. "We launched Ashekman in 2001 and I think being identical twins actually helped it expand at a faster rate. If Mohamed is working on a project in Beirut, I'll be in Dubai. If he's in Dubai, I'll be in London. It's like we have four arms and are working 48 hours a day!" A good strategy, indeed.
Born to creative parents - their mother was a painter - the duo had a natural knack for art growing up. However, they were raised during Lebanon's civil war, which lasted from 1975-1990, and it had an undeniable influence on their work.
"I remember we used to go to the basement because there was so much bombing around us," said Omar, "and it made us want to express ourselves in a way that was not exactly contemporary. Our mother used to create really calm and peaceful drawings and paintings of nature and we started creating graffiti - which is like the exact opposite."
Armed with their paint, the brothers used to wake up at 4 or 5am and start painting the streets. That way, when other people woke up, it looked as though the graffiti had just appeared overnight, as if by magic. Their work also features mostly Arabic calligraphy - their way of paying tribute to the region and its culture.
"Arabic culture is just so old and so rich and we wanted to go back to its roots," explained Omar. "We just noticed that a lot of youngsters these days don't talk in Arabic, and prefer English or French instead. They don't see it as 'cool' enough. But these are the same people who respect and look up to street artists and we wanted to use that influence to reach the younger generation."
It's not just about the artwork or the language though - it's also about the message they're sending. Omar confessed that Ashekman rarely, if ever, creates artwork that only bears a name or a mural. There are mostly social messages behind their work.
"The thing about graffiti is that you might start it as a passion or a hobby, but when your name gets bigger and you get followers, you realise that you have a responsibility to them," said Omar. "We want to send out positive messages that could be seen by all."
(An aerial view of the Salaam Project in Lebanon)
Which is how their biggest project to date - the Salaam Project - came about. The duo located an area in the districts of Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh in Tripoli, Lebanon, which witnessed clashes in the past, and started painting the rooftops a bright pistachio green to spell out 'Salaam' in Arabic - which literally translates to peace. They even enlisted the help of ex-militia to help paint the peaceful message!
"We got the idea for the project three years ago," said Omar. "We saw the way Lebanon was being portrayed by the media, as a place of violence and radicalism - but we knew that it's a country full of creativity and talent. People there just want to live and work and evolve. We wanted a big message - that could be seen from the sky - that would show people from other countries what we are really about: peace."
Their artwork spanned 85 structures, and was no mean feat. For starters, they had to speak to people in every single building. They, then, had to get permission from the army in order to fly a drone for the pictures. And then there was the financial pressure - Ashekman funded 85 per cent of the project since they didn't want it to have a commercial aspect or any product placement. The funding of most of their projects is done with the help of their clothing brand which features their Arabic designs on T-shirts, tops and caps. "Independent artists from day one," as Omar said.
"It was hard work, but you know what? It made a small change in people's lives," said Omar proudly. "And that's what we want to do as street artists. We didn't do anything to promote it but pictures of the project went viral. International news organisations like CNN talked about us. It created a positive image about the region and that's all we wanted."
Ashekman has since expanded to the UAE and the brothers now work between Beirut and Dubai. Other than their clothing brand, they work on quite a few commercial projects in the city too. Their prime goal, however, is to show the rest of the world just how much creativity lies in the Middle East. "There are so many original ideas and great artists who just need a chance," said Omar. "A lot of people don't really take art seriously in this region - they think of it as a hobby and don't believe it can be a profession. But we want to change that perception. There are so many artists out there with potential and all they need is a chance to shine."