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Apr / May 2017
Stranger Things

WRITER: Stephanie d’Arc Taylor

Kuwaiti artist and designer Nanu Al Hamad likes to shock and surprise through a body of work that defies categorisation, let alone convention.

If there’s one thing millennials hate, it’s labels. Labels mean rigidity and inflexibility, they indicate stuffiness and the old fashioned corporate 9-to-5 monotony of their parents’ generation. Now, rather than going to work in an office to do one specific job for years on end, young professionals are more likely to work on finite projects from home, coffee shops or co-working spaces. Young people don’t want to be pigeonholed as engineers or entrepreneurs; they’re makers. They’re not seemingly even male or female anymore; they’re cis(-gendered).

 

The 850 USD Embarakiya is a human-sized lamp that you must shake hands with to switch on and off.

 

While he’s loath to admit it, 30-year-old Nanu Al Hamad more or less fits the millennial mould. The closest we can get to a shorthand description is that he is a Kuwaiti-American artist. He was born in Kuwait City and identifies as an Arab (despite a predilection for American culture cultivated during his upbringing in Southern California, and years spent in Chicago and New York), but rejects the idea that his work falls within the tradition sphere of Arab art.

Art, for Al Hamad, “doesn’t need to look Arabic for it to be an Arabic design. ”I don’t like geometric patterns or calligraphy, they are tacky to me. There’s the idea that art coming from an Arab has to reflect a new Arab design, but I don’t see it that way.”
Indeed, of his large body of work, only one stands out as something you could point to as ‘Arab’. The whimsical Embarakiya lamp is made from a mannequin wearing a thobe (a traditional male garment of the Arabian peninsula). Instead of the man’s head, there’s a lamp shade that reflects the triangular shape of the draped kaffiyeh (the headdress traditionally worn with the thobe), topped with a black cord wrapped twice (similar to the agal). It may be a work only an Arab could have made without facing Twitter crucifixion, but there’s no profound deeper meaning. “I just thought it was funny,” says the artist.

 

The 400 USD Ghost light resembles a mirrored dome. But turn it on and the mirror effect vanishes leaving a floating lightbulb.

 

The sheer diversity of Al Hamad’s work, as well as his development as an artist, is also in keeping with the stereotypical millennial resistance to specialisation. His career as an artist began with a focus on the aural experience: from music composition to architectural acoustics – managing the sound of a building through architectural materials. His graduation from university, though, coincided with the 2008 global financial crash, after which he says “no one was hiring in acoustics.” Instead, he accepted an assistantship at the Kuwait atelier of the architect Aziz Al Qatami. Inspiration struck as he returned to the country his family had fled in the early 1990s, when he began designing furniture as the result of impulsively answering ‘yes, definitely’ to a client who asked him to create a new office suite.

“I had never designed furniture,” Al Hamad laughs, from his studio in Kuwait. “Aziz [Al Qatami] helped me though.” His work made a splash, leading to inquiries for commissions and a decision to focus solely, for a time, on furniture design. The short turnaround time between design and realisation, compared to aural work, was a relief to the young designer. “There’s something about the immediate validity of doing furniture. The creation timeline is shorter, you see your idea come to fruition quickly as opposed to a building, or acoustics which is intangible and so hard to see.”

 

The 9,975 USD Acropolis sofa is upholstered in a suede-like material and features an enveloping architecture designed to bestow those who sit on it a feeling of privacy and intimacy. 

 

“The functionality of furniture is very important, the experiential tangibility. I like its interactivity, its usability as well as its deterioration. Furniture has a lifespan,” he reflects.

As interest in his furniture grew, Al Hamad diversified and came up with an entire collection of unique and surprising objects. The Al Hamad canon now features everything from a wide variety of sleek, futuristic office furniture to medical paraphernalia-inspired bar accessories, to nebulous objets d’arts that elude easy description.

Bodily functions, as well as how society reckons with them, have become a theme as Al Hamad’s work evolves. “I’m really into medical stuff at the moment,” he says. “Everything made for the medical industry is extremely high grade and well developed, and considered so carefully, except for the final aesthetic. It’s a product completely devoid of aesthetic consideration, but it ends up being beautiful to me.”

 

Metropolis is a 6,400 USD three-legged cast-concrete chair upholstered in fine leather.

 

A running theme is the rolling IV stand. One iteration features a lamp, while a medical bag hangs from another (the artist recommends filling the bag with wine and using it as a dispenser). Another lamp is a hospital chair-shaped commode with a light in the receptacle bucket. One more work that comes off as slightly less visceral is a canvas with artistically smeared textured pink foam – that is until you see that the piece is called ‘Drunk Tank’.

There’s an obvious element of shock value from which Al Hamad draws his creativity. “People aren’t comforted when seeing something recontextualised. I like getting reactions, making people feel something before they use or sit on something, being surprised before they feel comfortable.”

Moving between Kuwait and the United States, Al Hamad has developed a following in both worlds, as well as in the burgeoning arts hub of Dubai. “I have a standalone store in Dubai, and the Traffic gallery will begin representing me there in 2017.”
Not a furniture designer, nor resident of any one country and not a millennial (“the term means nothing to me”), this year Al Hamad may have to get used to at least one label: successful.

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