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Painting with Punches: Meet Egyptian Modern Art Heavyweight Omar Hassan

Omar Hassan Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

Omar Hassan
©Alex Maguire Photography

At 6 feet, 3 inches tall and boasting a boxer’s powerful physique, Omar Hassan is a fine artist who radiates instant star quality. The son of an Egyptian father and Italian mother, his creative talent has him on a fast-track to the international art scene. caught up with the artist in London to talk about his passions, inspirations, and dreams in color.

Raised in the outskirts of Milan, Omar Hassan was creative from a young age, “I’ve always had a love of painting and drawing. I used to make my mother mad by drawing and painting on everything I could find, even the walls at home,” he admitted with a knowing smile. Aged fifteen, the confines of home could not contain the youngster’s yearning for creative expression, and so he turned to the city and made it his playground. Experimenting with street art (encouraged by a friend who tragically lost his life in a fatal fall in an underground tunnel) led Hassan to channel his energies into boxing, and later, into the study of fine art.

“As a teenager, I started my passion with street art, but I am not a street artist.”
⎯Omar Hassan

Parallel to his artwork, Hassan trained as a boxer with the drive to become a professional sportsman. But this ambition was curbed when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. This affliction however, would later drive him to shape his artistic trademark⎯the dot.

Determined with his new direction, Hassan swapped his daily boxing routine for hours spent in the studio to hone his creative discipline. Once enrolled at the prestigious Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, Hassan put his street art days firmly behind him. At the academy, he immersed himself fully in the study of fine art to develop his own signature style. Following graduating in 2010, he was discovered by Cristian Contini, the founder and director of ContiniArtUK, who continues to champion his work.

How has your Egyptian heritage helped shape your art?
Growing up in a cross-cultural family means that I’ve always kept an open mind and this is the single most important factor when it comes to my art.

Who do you count among your favorite artists?
While studying, I discovered my art heroes⎯Jackson Pollock, Piero Manzoni, and Fontana.

Tell us more about your signature, “The dot.”
The dot originates from street art. For every street artist, the dot is considered the first letter of the alphabet⎯it’s how one checks the color of the spray paint. I took this premise and evolved it to a higher level. For me, the dot also symbolizes my diabetes. I started to paint five dots a day on canvas, and they represent the five insulin shots that I have to take daily. This ultimately led to the creation of my Injections series.

Egypt, 2015 Photo: ContiniArtUK

Egypt, 2015
Photo: ContiniArtUK

Can you explain how your love of boxing had a positive impact on your creative technique?
I don’t want to be considered a boxer who tried his hand at art—I was always an artist—first and foremost. Boxing is a great discipline; it taught me how to breathe properly and to never give up. It was while I was in the gym during a routine training session that I had the idea to use my boxing gloves as a method to paint a canvas with a series of jabs. The inspiration led to my Breaking Through exhibition series.

What is the proudest moment of your career thus far?
My first solo exhibition Breaking Through, which debuted here at ContiniArtUK in 2015. It was the moment when I felt that my work was truly appreciated, and that was the best sensation.

Which of your works are you most proud of?
Nike White on White, 2013. At a glance, you aren’t quite sure whether it’s a canvas or a sculpture. You ask yourself, “Is it 2D or 3D?” It is actually both, and the dots are of course present, but they are white on white—so there’s the intrigue.

Quite a departure from your bold use of color?
Yes, and I love color. With my 3D sculptures, I wanted to challenge our notion of classicism. In the study of the history of art, we see classicism as traditional, white sculpture; but the Greeks actually loved the use of color. So, I take sculpture and add the bold color—almost like an homage.

Éclaboussure...Nike, 2011 Photo: ContiniArtUK

Éclaboussure…Nike, 2011
Photo: ContiniArtUK

Who would you most like to be a fan of your work?
Floyd Mayweather, Jr.

On a soundtrack to your life, which artists would make the cut?
I’m a fan of old-school hip hop, so Public Enemy and Run DMC, for sure.

You are often pictured in paint-splashed kicks, is this a defining part of your personal style?
When I work, my clothes and white trainers get splattered with paint, so my art really has made a stamp on my style. The boxing gloves I paint with are then recycled as part of my sculptures.

What’s next for Omar Hassan?
After we complete showing the Breaking Through exhibition in the four major cities: London, Miami, Milan in April, and New York in September, I want to work on getting into a museum. If I am allowed to dream, it would be the MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art.)

—Elizabeth Whiston-Dew

Homepage image ©Lorenzo Palmieri

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