Everyone from Saudi royals to Kanye West and the Kardashians collects the bold, abstract, and colorful art of Abdullah Qandeel. A disciple of the Japanese concept of kaizen (“continuous improvement”), Qandeel creates large oil paintings rife with texture and boundless energy. Through his use of line and color, the Saudi artist explores themes such as power and failure. “There is no plan, just movement,” he says of his work. “You move, breathe, and believe in yourself.”
For the past few years, Qandeel has been in a new phase of his professional and personal growth, with the aim of becoming a more structured, precise, and focused artist. Above all, he is exploring himself, to better communicate his ideas in a more delicate and thoughtful way.
Even though he’s been arrested twice for “redecorating” with paint the five-star hotel suites he was staying in (6 Columbus in New York and The May Fair in London), Qandeel never considered his subversive acts as vandalism. “I don’t have a habit of destroying property. I have a habit of making art,” he says, adding that he plans to open a hotel that doesn’t arrest artists for being themselves. “I don’t know how my art will look in the future,” Qandeel shares. “But I do think I have the ability to transmit energy. I want to influence others and inspire younger artists.”
Qandeel strives to create joy and positive social impact through his work and is buoyed by the burgeoning art industry in his native country. “It’s a new era,” he states of Saudi’s progressive direction. Today, Qandeel is intentionally reducing his production to start work on a large-scale incubation project in Jeddah: The Creativity Terminal. “The goal is to build an entire ecosystem focused on empowering youth to unlock their creative potential, generate new opportunities, and simultaneously reactivate rural areas to reinvigorate local economies,” he says. This state-of-the-art, fully integrated creative hub and co-working space will comprise a creation store for all types of art production, while also doubling as a technology hub; a pavilion with 20 music and photo studios, meeting and screening rooms, and study cubicles; 88 warehouse-like structures, called Gates, around the property to house Saudi Arabia’s most promising startups; a zen garden; and a massive event space accompanied by an auditorium and gallery. “I am building a centralized co-working space that inspires and empowers artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs through collaboration and dialogue, as well as providing the tools necessary for all sorts of content creation. We are at risk from automation; my project is the answer,” Qandeel says. “The venue would house artists, music studios, a library, and the largest event space in all of Saudi Arabia.” Construction for the project will start on May 1, 2020. Currently, in the fundraising stage, the group has finalized designs with the Japanese firm Florian Busch Architects.
“Art is risk,” states Qandeel. “It took art to develop the modern world. I invite you to observe, feel, and absorb the development of the new Arab culture; the revival of a generation where investigation replaces revelation.” Offering people different perspectives and ways of seeing the world, expressing humanity and beauty, focusing on creativity to solve problems, and using art to promote freedom of thought are at the heart of his new mission. He is hopeful for the future of his country, describing it as a “melting pot that has resulted in a culture that is loving, warm, and filled with potential.” He waxes poetic, commenting that the Kingdom is “a canvas of sand waiting to be painted with monumental beauties that will last forever in time and remind future generations of the possibilities of today.”
Born in 1988 in Jeddah, Qandeel is a driving force behind the art market in the Middle East. His work Kingdom of Love was the first contemporary art gift by the Kingdom to the US. In October 2014, his work The Enemy Within sold for US $209 000 at Sotheby’s. “The painting is a self-portrait… And I’m my own worst enemy,” he comments of the piece. The following year, the same auction house sold The Race for US $274 000.
Getting here didn’t happen overnight. Qandeel’s journey of self-expression began at 10 years old when he was sent to the UK to attend one of the oldest schools in the world, The King’s School Canterbury.
Always drawing, he was fascinated with sketching patterns and the notion of creating something from his mind that could be seen by others. After entering the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Qandeel’s life took a new direction. Circumstances inspired him to create his first “real” art piece when he was 20. Qandeel painted Divorce, depicting a crying woman, a man, and a child in the middle. He then moved to the US, arriving first in Kansas, where his aunt lived. He painted every day, eventually moving to New York, a city that represented great opportunity – a city where nobody knew him and he could start anew.
A chance dinner invitation led to the meeting that would change his life: Safia Al Rashid El Malqui – collector, philanthropist, founder of SEM-ART gallery, and ambassador for Art Monte Carlo – immediately noticed Divorce, which Qandeel had on his phone screen, and asked him who created it. “At that time, I didn’t consider myself an artist,” Qandeel recalls. El Malqui invited him to do his first exhibition in Monte Carlo during the 2011 Grand Prix. Other shows were organized in Jeddah, Riyadh, Los Angeles, and New York. “Success in art is about not giving up,” he says. “Art starts from the heart and my art is an extension of my curiosity.”
His artistic references include modern masters such as Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, and Anselm Kiefer, among others. “What I truly love about Matisse is his gentleness,” Qandeel says. “That’s what allows you to be inspiring to others. I don’t look for inspiration; it comes from within.”
Rule breaker, out-of-the-box thinker, and decision-maker, Qandeel considers, “My power is the ability to create beauty. I believe that I have been given a gift by God to create things – objects that emit positive energy.” He recently donated 25 paintings to King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Centre in Riyadh in the hope of “bringing beauty to otherwise challenging circumstances.”
Qandeel believes everybody should ask themselves what their talent is, and look for a way to convey something good to others. “What you give, will come back.”
Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia