I remember it was also in the heat of June when I last visited Jalal Luqman’s workspace. It was in Musaffah, Abu Dhabi’s industrial area, where he rented a workshop to create his first – and iconic – sculpture, The Invisible Giant. Off a dusty alleyway, among noisy car workshops, his “studio” was a hangar-like room, full of tools and materials, anything from aluminum sheets to different size hammers. No air-conditioning. He worked for almost a year, throughout the heat of the entire summer to complete the three meters high and nearly 900 kilograms sculpture, created out of galvanized steel. Working in extremely hot conditions, Jalal got tired, injured, burnt all his fingers and even suffered temporary blindness. He gave up six times, but kept returning, refusing to give up.
‘I could not accept defeat. It took me eight months to make it, working 10 hours a day. I got a huge sense of accomplishment when I finished it,’ says Jalal.
The Invisible Giant has become a stepping stone, a defining moment in the creative career of the artist. A huge male figure in a humble posture, keeping his head down, The Invisible Giant suggests that there are many “giants” in all layers of the society, when it comes to good deeds, but they mostly go unnoticed, hence the name of the sculpture. After being admired for several years in art shows and galleries, the statue is now taking a break from exhibitions, being kept in storage in Abu Dhabi.
It is works like these that make Jalal Luqman one of the best known and best sold Emirati artists nationally and internationally. He is also UAE’s first digital artist and now considered to be a prominent fine artist as well.
Nine years after he created The Invisible Giant, I met up with him to discover another landmark added to his creative horizon. This time, the artist has ventured into the world of literature. The Armagondas is an epic graphic novel in six volumes, written by Jalal Luqman and illustrated by Denis Medri. The first volume, The Orphans of Armagon, was recently published.
‘The Armagondas is a fantasy graphic novel about a group of people who left their war-loving traditions and went to live on an island, which they made into a peaceful heaven. After 50 years, things changed; they got attacked. Some of them got killed, others were taken as slaves and a small group of orphans managed to escape,’ explains Jalal.
‘The story is completely fabricated, it’s not part of any real story that happened. The name is basically the name of the people. They are Armagondas and they lived in a civilisation called the Armagon. There are many important characters and it would take too long to mention all of them, but the main one is the son of King Elon, Stagarron. King Elon decided to leave the fighting life and lead his people away from war to go and form a new kingdom based on peace and harmony, on intellect and science, rather than to excel in war and weaponry,’ he says.
The novel was not a last-minute whim to test a new artistic territory. Jalal began working on The Armagondas some 20 years ago, and the story is what dictated the illustrations, not the other way around. He loves Leo Tolstoy, Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, but The Armagondas was not inspired by any of these writers or any other authors. Jalal’s characters were born out of his imagination.
‘I started writing the book around 1996-1997. It was mainly as a relief from daily routine; I wanted to create this place where I can go to, just to get away from here and now. It developed over the years; I kept writing then I would put it down and come back to it a few months later. Most of the story was written on napkins, scraps of paper or cardboard whenever I had some free time, while exercising or travelling, in airplanes or waiting rooms. It took me that long. Finally, about three or four years ago I decided to gather everything and put it all down in one book. When I did that I ended up with hundreds of thousands of words and about six volumes in total,’ says Jalal.
So far, the feedback to his novel has been very positive. Many readers contacted him to say that once they read the first page, they could not put the book down.
‘Of course, you have to like fantasy graphic novels. If you like politics or poetry, the book may not be your taste, but for people who are into fantasy stories, they enjoy The Armagondas,’ claims Jalal.
He now plans to have the novel adapted into a movie or TV series. Such an achievement would take him right back to his first artistic muse, which was the world of special effects.
THE 10 POUNDS COMPUTER
Jalal is the youngest child of 11 siblings. He was born in the late 1960s and grew up along with his native town, Abu Dhabi. His father was a lawyer, working as a legal assistant for Sheikh Zayed, helping to write the laws of the newly formed UAE. As a kid, Jalal didn’t care much for school, often finding himself sent to the “corner” of the classroom for retreating into his fantasy world that he would draw on a piece of paper instead of paying attention to the teacher. His father supported his creativity, buying him acrylics, watercolours and even computer magazines. With the help of these magazines, Jalal taught himself computer programming, simply because he wanted to be able to design video games he could play.
‘When I was a kid I had a lot of energy and teaching myself machine language or computer programming wasn’t too hard at that time because kids back then were more focused. We didn’t have many things to divert our attention; we didn’t have play stations, iPods and iPads. We did physical activities, which made our bodies and minds very strong and sharp and, later on, when computers got there, they didn’t have any storage devices, so we learnt to type, read and write in computer language. It was difficult now that I think of it, but it was fun,’ explains Jalal.
Talking of his love for arts and graphics, Jalal says, “To start with, what inspired me artistically wasn’t an artwork, it was special effects and movie art. I was really a big fan of the old Sinbad movies and fantasy movies; I loved the special effects of Ray Harryhousen (Mighty Joe Young, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans), and then later on Alien came out. I was also a big fan of H.R. Giger (Swiss artist who worked on the special effects of the movie Alien, winning him and his team an Academy Award). I was really inspired by that kind of art rather than the fine arts.’
While his father supported Jalal’s creativity, he drew the line at his son’s university studies. Yet, Jalal convinced him to allow him to study business in the US, where he also managed to take a few art classes. The decision helped him a great deal, as Jalal became one of the rare artists capable of marketing himself. Back in Abu Dhabi, he began making good money as a freelance graphic designer.
‘I believe the most decisive moment for me, as an artist, was in 2008, when I decided to become a full-time artist and leave the corporate world. That’s when I decided I needed the freedom to grow as an artist and as an author,’ says Jalal.
‘I was selling art even in the 80s. Before I was an artist, I was a commercial artist. I had clients for whom I designed T-shirts, company logos and so on. The first artwork I sold as an artist was in February 1996,’ he recalls.
Right from the start, Jalal created his own artistic identity. His paintings were often dark, disturbing even, forcing his viewers to reach beyond the image and search for the meaning within. Another Silence, for example, a portrait of a woman with a black face, holding a bloody teddy bear, on a misty-white background, was “inspired” by a gruesome story Jalal read in the papers, about a father who bit his newborn child to death in a fit of anger while the mother sat watching.
There is also Under 1000 Masques, another portrait of a woman, a beautiful, young one this time; her powerful black eyes and dark hair are framed by the red fringe of her black headscarf, while her face is covered by layers upon layers of masques. The statement of the painting is that we all wear masques, we all put on fake smiles to conform and get what we need from the society.
Such artworks had earned Jalal’s art pieces the label “controversial”, but when he opened his first art gallery, the Ghaff Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi, in 2009, his “dark” art collection was a massive success.
‘I believe my artwork is a little bit gutsier than what was available in the market when I was exhibiting. Yes, it is quite dark, but it doesn’t mean it carries a dark message in it. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Sometimes to send an honest message out through art, the artwork needs to be dark, but the message that my art carries is never negative or destructive, but I deliver it in a strong and heartaching way because sometimes people need to pay attention,’ explains the artist.
It’s not just the concept and the style of his work that made Jalal to stand out as an artist; it’s his technical approach too. He was UAE’s first digital artist and that didn’t mean he took a photo and applied a couple of Photoshop art filters. His digital artwork began with oil or pencil on canvas, with an actual painting or drawing he did, which was then transferred to a computer and applied as many as 15 layers of digital manipulation, each with its own purpose and with a final result in mind.
Not a fan of being labelled, Jalal moved on to painting and, his biggest artistic adventure, metal sculpting. His journey as an artist was “told” by Jalal himself during his first retrospective exhibition, which opened his own second art gallery, Citizen E, this time in Dubai’s Design District.
While his work kept making bigger waves in the art world, Jalal felt art is not enough to leave behind as a legacy. For years, he has dedicated his time, knowledge and money to helping generations of young artists. Jalal’s art trips have become legendary among UAE’s art communities.
‘I believe that one has to share his knowledge for him to grow himself. Also, you have to help others; if you are great, help others to become great, if you are an expert, show others how to be experts. I believe in this. I don’t believe that we will take anything with us to the grave, so it’s a good thing to pass on your knowledge and experience. This way, knowledge grows and develops for many generations to come,” says Jalal.
‘I’ve given art trips, sponsoring 10-15 artists in each trip. I took them on inspirational trips, then gave them workshops and exhibited their artwork, all for free. This was just a small step of what one can do to serve the art community, especially in the UAE, which has a fledgling art community that needs a lot of support and development,’ he adds.
Many of these artists – painters, musicians, sculptors, photographers, quilt artists and even interior designers – have gone on to become professional artists, forming their own art community groups and exhibiting regularly.
Despite the growing art scene in the UAE, making it as an artist is close to impossible, due to an influx of European and other oversees art brought into the country and a lesser appreciation of art. Jalal is one of the very few Emirati artists who makes a living purely out of art. He believes that the Emirati art has a well-defined identity, but it still needs support, which should come first and foremost from the art community itself.
‘The Emirati art has a strong identity. If people choose not to see it or to neglect it, that’s their problem, but we have a distinct identity; not every person who claims to be an Emirati artist is actually an artist, but the real artists who are out there have carved a definite identity of Emirati art,’ claims Jalal.
For him, the art journey will continue with a new project: ‘I’m working on new sculptures and monuments, which will take more time, as I’m concentrating on quality rather than quantity.’
In the meantime, he will continue to release the next five volumes of The Armagondas, one every six months and inspire the younger generation to dream big.