Idriss B - the French Tunisian artist causing a stir on Dubai's streets

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By Jane Witherspoon
Idriss B - the French Tunisian artist causing a stir on Dubai's streets
Copyright  euronews   -   Credit: Dubai

Idriss B is a Paris-born French Tunisian who has relocated to Dubai - and whose art is having a big impact there, sprinkled around the city's streets and other landmarks.

We caught up with him as he exhibits his work at the first physical art fair to take place at Dubai's World Trade Centre since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Idriss was delighted that the exhibition could take place:

'It's like a back to life event, you know, especially for Dubai. There are so many events going on, usually.

"So it's kind of refreshing to see (people) having a normal life."

Idriss said the impact of the pandemic on the art industry globally has been huge:

"It simply stopped everything. For me, I was supposed to have quite a lot of events and everything has just locked since nine months ago.

"So my next event was supposed to be Park Avenue in New York City and everything just stopped."

Although delighted to see people enjoying the art fair while adhering to the safety guidelines, Idriss admitted there had been big challenges connected with the situation for him:

"The main one was literally having a mask (while) working on everything.

"That was because of the heat, because of everything, that was the biggest challenge.

"The rest is more about social distancing. But now everybody is just used to it, we're just following the rules since a couple of months (ago), so it's a habit."

Idriss explained to me how he got into art; it was because of a period when he was confined to bed:

"After a trip in the US, I had gout and I got stuck in bed. And it was fun for the first week, second week - but by the third one you're just killing yourself!

"I was drawing a little bit. Then I was like: 'Okay, now I have nothing to do. So this could be a good moment for me to make my own pieces', which I had wanted to do (for) a while. So that's how it started.

"I took a big block of clay and I started sculpting it in the middle of the bed. So it was funny. Then I did that first piece. I showed it to my wife and she was like, ‘Wow, I love it!’ while usually with art, she’s not really interested.

"I was like: 'Oh, if she's saying that it’s good, that might be something'.

"So I started first with a gorilla. The second one I did was a tiger and then little by little I showed (them) to friends, and they were like, ‘Oh, who did that? I want to buy it.’

"I was like 'That's me!' They were like ‘What, really?!’ So this is how it started."

"Having these pieces, even though they're made of fibreglass and resin, with colours, makes the place alive" - Idriss BEuronews

I asked Idriss to talk me through the process: from the moment of inspiration and an initial sketch, to realising the art via fibreglass and resin:

"It's been more than five years that I've been doing it. And at the beginning, it was sculpting with clay, literally like old school. And now we have 3D printing and all those kind of things.

"So now what I'm doing is, at first I draw it by hand just on paper; just to get the right emotion, the right pose of the animal. And then I make it into 3D.

"Then I (do a) 3D print. I make a mould out of it. Usually, I then modify that one because what you think in your mind and what you draw - it's not the same as (once it's) real. So I modify a little bit. The position of the legs, the polygon size, those kind of things.

"And then I make a mould out of it when I'm really satisfied with everything. And then I do the pieces with fibreglass and resin."

I asked how his background - French Tunisian, born and brought up in Paris - had influenced his work:

"It's multicultural, especially now, as I'm back to the Middle East and it's a Muslim country. The culture is really similar (to Tunisia) even though North Africa is a little bit different because the Mediterranean is the same a little bit: Italy, Greece, Spain. So it's a multicultural environment.

Euronews' Jane Witherspoon interviews Idriss B as he exhibits his work at Dubai's World Trade CentreEuronews

Other influences loom large in Idriss' work:

"I was born in the 80s and at that time, it was all about video games, Japanese things. This is where we all discovered how Japan advanced everything. So this influenced me a lot.

"And then I went to live in China, a completely different culture (with) different things that you see and different ways of doing things."

His artwork is dotted around Dubai's landmarks. I asked why he thought it seemed such a natural fit here:

"It's very urban. So usually, urban is kind of scary. And let's say, (with) an inhuman feel: a lot of glass, a lot of metal, a lot of concrete.

"So having those pieces, even though they're made of fibreglass and resin, with colours - it makes the place alive.

"I have to say, I was not prepared for such a desire for it."

I asked him how important he thought the art industry was here in the UAE and in Dubai specifically:

"Art is a bit different to the rest of the material stuff, because you can buy a lot of things; art is more about creating and it gives emotion also.

"So you don't touch it: you feel it. So that's why also I believe it's so important for (Dubai) and for the UAE in general."

Idriss believes it's people's emotional responses that gives art its universality:

"It gives you a feeling, no matter if it's a good one or not; it always makes you feel something. So you can not like it, but you felt something.

"And I think that's what people have been really sensitive (to), especially with this time period because of COVID. A lot of people were alone in their home, or (as) a couple. And so it gave them a lot of time to think about it.

"And so they came back to art, because they realised how important it is to have a nice home, have your nest.

"And so they are going to buy new paintings that makes them feeling something special. So I think that's why it's so important (about) art: it really gives you feelings."

I asked him what he thought about art being used for social or political motivation:

"That's a good question, because I just did a piece for Black Lives Matter, so that's definitely interesting to me.

"Art at the end of the day is about giving. It's about sharing emotion. It’s even about giving the vision that you have. And when I saw all those things that were happening with Black Lives Matter, I was like, ‘I have to do something. If I can do something, I would like to do something'.

"I'm not going to go to the US to protest, but if I can do something on my own, that can be nice.

"And so I came up with the idea of having a special sculpture dedicated to that and also giving them all the money I will receive from it."

Idriss B's family roots are in Tunisia and he's temporarily based there at the moment. I asked for his thoughts on how the pandemic was affecting that country:

"Well, it cannot be worse than now. The government is not really working. The economy is not really working. No tourists now, as the borders are closed.

"I believe they are just trying to find their way, you know, the best way possible (to make it work).