In the Studio with Badr Ali

In the studio with Badr Ali, whose work explores the use of the drawing as a cognitive tool of expression and investigation. We met with Badr to tell us more about their greatest influences, unexpected sources of inspiration, and what it means to be an 'artist'.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I think the title ‘Artist’ carries so much weight to me that I still struggle referring to myself as one; and the main reason for that is because I heavily delve into the histories, lives and experiences of Artists whom I look up to and admire and see the powerful connection and correlation between those things and their work. I only dream to reach that level of achievement throughout my lifetime. 

I suppose this stems from my own definition of what an Artist is; those who deduce from influential experiences, be it personal, societal or political; and manifesting it into an artistic expression of any form that resonates with others that in-turn influences people’s lives and perceptions. 

Artist as a ‘whole being’ who encompasses a multitude of traits and qualities, rather than simply an individual who makes art. Does that make sense? 

I’ve always referred to myself as a Painter; despite working with processes that aren’t particular to Painting; however; I feel more true to myself and what I do and how I express myself through the guise of being a Painter; but that’s a whole different conversation 🙂 

 Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I’ve had a pretty diverse upbringing; being born in the United States and brought up sporadically in different countries; however maintaining a Saudi Arabian identity and heritage whilst living within Europe for more than 13 years. At one point; there was an overwhelming sensation of being in perpetual identity crisis – However, I’ve learned that despite having an unconventional upbringing, it is the reason why I am how I am and began accepting it for how it is. 

It’s difficult for me to personally see how my upbringing in particular has impacted my work, but for those who know me, my background and life story are probably better at seeing that than I am.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice, artistic work?

For a very long time, I pursued my interests with Art as a private relationship, up until I began receiving some recognition by those around me for my work that I began to consider takinging it to another level by going to Art school and approaching it more seriously and academically; essentially to learn efficient ways to discuss what I do effectively to others, but also to surround myself with individuals who are going through the same experience and learning with each other ‘how to be’.

It was only when I was invited to exhibit work for the first time in my native country of Saudi Arabia at Athr Gallery in Jeddah for a show dedicated to young emerging talent that the immense response and feedback to my work made me feel like ‘Wow, okay, no turning back now haha’. It was very eye-opening to the fact that this is the path I chose for myself; it felt natural and organic and made me accept that this is what I am supposed to do now, for however long.

What’s the message of your work? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

It constantly changes; it’s hard to pin-point. I was referred to by a few colleagues as a ‘Painter’s painter’ which I wasn’t sure what it exactly meant, up until I understood that the majority of my work has been ‘about’ painting; during a period I was heavily invested in ‘Process’ and the idea of layering multiple processes. 

Eventually, I was exclusively exploring ‘sublime’ landscapes and depicting my own interpretations of heavenly or ethereal environments; focusing on space and immersion, being inspired by the collections at the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery when I was living in London at the time. 

And more recently, I’ve been exploring Drawing. It’s role and function within my practice, but also looking at how drawing manifests visual languages and ‘knowledge’ that would otherwise be ‘un-tapped’ if it weren’t for the ‘process’ of drawing. I’m still playing with this one and I’m really enjoying it and learning a lot about how I think and make decisions from it. 

It’s nearly impossible for me to decide how or when these influences and changes happen, but when they do – I go with it.

Who/what are your greatest influences? 

I suppose it’s a cliché to say ‘Old Masters’, but I think it’s everyone’s first exposure to Art in museums or books; however in my case it became a bit of an obsession specifically with regards to ‘how’ they were made. I dedicated most of my self-guided artistic education towards the technical processes and techniques, and teaching myself by observing and studying Old Master paintings irrespective of historical context, Era or country of origin. 

Learning by observing, experimenting and trial and error was my initial fascination towards Painting. It was only when I began receiving a formal contemporary arts education that I learned that ‘skill’ was not enough to make the kind of Art I wanted to make; and the importance of knowing about whom exactly am I looking at and taking inspiration from and why; as it indeed bares a significant impact on the work that I was making. 

Artists such as Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 16th Century), Jean-Honoré Fragonard (French, 17th Century) and Caspar David Friedrich (German, 17th Century) to name a few. 

It was interesting for me to realise that most of them were European and come from very different ‘schools’ of Painting and have various reasons as to why they painted, however – I learned from them what I could, and make it a point that the work I produce doesn’t mimic or replicate, but actually is spoken in my own voice and ‘style’, for lack of a better word. 

An unexpected source of inspiration?

I’ve been a member of multiple different Life-drawing societies in London, Paris and Berlin. And for a period of time I took on the role of teaching drawing in the way that I did. One of the exercises one would do to introduce someone new to observational drawing with a Life model is a series of quick drawings of short poses that last between 15-30 second to a minute. The core principle of this exercise is to ‘program’ your eyes, mind and hand to quickly register the most significant indicators of what is in front of you that gives you an impression of what is being observed; completely disregarding any form of detail or shading that you would otherwise spend your time on in a Long-pose study. 

And 9/10 I found the results of these quick studies absolutely fascinating and much more interesting than the results of an hour long single pose detailed study. 

During my 1-year Artist residency at Cité des Arts in Paris, I began taking this exercise further within my own work and started a whole new practice focusing on gestural drawing and the information and ‘meaning’ lines can sustain and have been working with this method up until now. 

Tess us about the inspiration behind one of your works?

I began collaborating with a few contemporary dancers, where I would sit in on some of their rehearsals of performances and do some drawings; attempting to record their movements with gestural drawings. I put myself in a type of “sensory deprivation” where I had headphones on that played white noise sounds; and the intention behind this was to solely focus on what I was observing and to eliminate any other distractions or influences that were happening in the dance studio such as the music the dancers played or their conversations they had or even the stomps they made as they jumped. It was important for me to be completely detached from everything that was happening besides their movements, and enter somewhat of a trance-like state.

From that, I amassed hundreds of drawings over the years, and started using these drawings as starting points and references for my recent work. The works ‘Moving and Shaking’ 7 & 8 for example, are based on some of the original drawings that I turned into screen-printing frames and manually printed them on raw canvas. I ‘collage’ them and no print is ever exactly the same – and questions begin to arise of whether by doing so from a source that depicted a particular ‘script’ of a performance, re-interprets/transforms them into a completely new set of movements. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I would hope to continue with the trajectory I am on right now with my work and garner more opportunities to showcase internationally. I would like to possibly go on more Artists Residencies because I benefited a lot from the ones I’ve been on so far; in terms of being in an environment dedicated to experimentation and research, all whilst being amongst other artists to create new dialogues and exchanges. 

I’m anticipating new changes and transformations to my work, but I would want it to happen organically. I’m curious about 3-dimensional processes, specifically in terms of porcelain and ceramics. Maybe the next time I find time to be on another residency I’ll look more into that; who knows!