Painter Shadi Al-Atallah examines gender, sexuality, racial identity and mental health in their eloquent works
The Saudi Arabia-born, London-based artist tells us about their practice in which self portraits are made of “everything and everyone around” them.
- Ruby Boddington
- 23 June 2020
For fine artist Shadi Al-Atallah, the creative industries were a foreign entity while growing up in Saudi Arabia. Selectively mute during childhood, however, painting presented itself as a means of escape and form of communication; “I found freedom in the auditory silence and visual noise,” they recall. After studying a BA in illustration at Camberwell College of Art, Shadi lost their way somewhat and “forgot how to paint.” A “horrible year” which involved a psychiatric admission led them to discover the medium once again, however, and Shadi “began constructing versions of myself in the form of self-portraiture made up of images of everything and everyone around me.” Shadi’s connection to painting has therefore always been deeply personal, one that's intertwined with self-expression and self-care.
On what specifically draws them to painting over digital illustration or photography, Shadi tells us it’s the medium’s ability to bring to life “whatever image is in your head without any physical restraints.” In Shadi’s work, limbs and body parts are enlarged or distorted, something they can achieve without post-production or digital manipulation. They work with acrylic, oil pastels or bars – all fast-paced mediums which give Shadi flexibility and the chance to work on large paintings in one sitting. “This means I don’t lose my train of thought and I can translate my ideas instantly, which is how I enjoy to paint. I enjoy the feeling of applying a quick stroke,” they continue.
The moment of creating an image is one that Shadi describes as cathartic. “A series or painting could start from a conversation and it’ll be built up by a bunch of open tabs, photos, memes and films that I’ll keep as points of reference in my head,” they explain. Then, bringing those references together to actually form a painting is purgative, Shadi’s own form of “chaotic controlled storytelling.”
Thematically, their paintings deal with the self and what self-portraiture means, “how we’re just a mirror of everything around us,” they state. “I think I also subconsciously explore elements of gender, sexuality and racial identity in my artwork, and of course mental health/illness – I love medical imagery and iconography.”
These concepts manifest in a visual language which is experimental, eloquent and free. It only takes a quick glance at Shadi’s portfolio to gain an understanding that this is an artist with a lot say. Physical awkwardness is a commonality among their works, as well as a “use of scratchy oil pastel on fluid ink and acrylic.” This creates stark contrasts of textures and colours, and Shadi’s preference for unstretched canvas also comes into play: “I like to see the mistakes and flaws and to also appreciate the surface I’m working on fully, by hanging it as it is.” Through small touches such as these, which reveal the artist’s hand, Shadi’s works remain firmly grounded in the real world, despite their often abstract aesthetics. This allows us to recognise ourselves or others in the works and therefore gain an understanding of Shadi’s intention – the narrative imbued in the work.
A series which typifies this – as well as Shadi’s interest in representations of the self – is Roadblock, created for their solo show of the same name in 2018 at Cob Gallery in London. “At the time I was reading about embodied cognition, a cognitive science idea that the mind isn’t just attached to and influencing the body, but that the body is actually influencing the mind. That reason is entirely tied to our physical systems, basically,” they explain. “I was really intrigued by the idea and thought of it in terms of what my self-portraiture means. It could also mean that when you look at a painting depicting physical pain, you could feel physical pain too and you might cringe without realising it.”
This revelation led them to examine their own self-portraiture, realising that these kinds of works are perhaps not based on them at all; one rarely looks at their own body but mostly experiences it, at least in Shadi’s case. “So, I decided to define anything that embodied my physical feeling at the moment of creating it, a self-portrait.” One painting in the series is titled Kris croker stole my tears which is a self-portrait of Shadi as Chris Crocker caring while eating, upside-down in an “unrealistic position, uncomfortable, oddly happy and sad,” they describe. “I think it sums up the series which is simply attempting to dismantle my understanding of self-portraiture.”
Looking ahead, Shadi is excited to get back into the studio and push their work as far as it can go, telling us “I’m ready to take away any doubts I’ve accumulated over the years about my direction, I’m excited to experiment and finally paint. Quarantine had me exploring different ways to communicate too and I’ve really been interested in film, so I’ve been working on a script and will hopefully be creating a short film and that’s a direction I’m hoping to incorporate permanently into my discipline alongside painting.”
GalleryShadi Al-Atallah. All images courtesy of the artist
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.