Ali Dawood, Iraqi artist merging hip-hop cultures and pop art

by Dina Khadr


Ali Dawood (@ill_lawi) is an Iraqi artist who creates pop culture pieces in re-imagined CG iterations bred from a combination of culture, street, and hip-hop. 

His latest series, “SneakerHead”, combining hip-hop culture with sneaker hype, was born during the pandemic; at a time where, like much of the world, Ali was forced into isolation, boredom and uncertainty – an environment that was reminiscent of the time when he first picked up his drawing pencil.

It was back in Iraq, that 8-year-old Ali would watch his film or play video games, when suddenly the electricity would go off. Interrupted mid-entertainment, Ali found a way to circumvent the boredom by doodling his interpretation of the film he was watching, or video game he was playing, would have potentially ended. From boredom and imagination, a whole world of possibilities flourished. During the pandemic, Ali recreated that world of imagination for himself, and “SneakerHead” was born.

Activist and author, Glennon Doyle, wrote in her best seller, Untamed, “when we hand our children phones, we steal their boredom from them (…) As a result we are raising a generation of writers who will never write, artists who will never doodle, chefs who will never make a mess of the kitchen.” 

Nour Magazine: How did you transition from CG to digital art? 

Ali Dawood: It’s twofold; there’s the influence that goes into my art and the technical part. In Jordan, I’d gotten into dancing (b-boying). Video games, music, and breakdancing were all part of the influence. When I started breakdancing, I was 15 – 16 years old, and I got very into the hip-hop culture, and fell in love with the music. As for the technical part, I got into 3-D, CG, while I was studying architecture, and I’d gotten introduced to 3-D software. I’d always been into video-gaming. The Play Station One was my first inspiration honestly. It’s what planted the seed. With architecture, CG is a big part of the visualisation, and how they present the building plans. Later on, I went to a digital school in L.A, and it was focused on digital production. That’s when my [artistic] style shifted.


NM: It seems uncommon to find Middle Eastern digital artists in the West. Was it hard for you to break into that field? 

AD: When I first moved to the States, I noticed that they were very aware of your race, nationality and your religion, but I think that’s everywhere. So, I was having difficulties when presenting myself. But when I presented my art, it was different. Because art doesn’t have colour (race) that can be judged. 

NM: You refer a lot to architecture as art. How would you define it

AD: Architecture is the highest form of art, that’s how I see it; it has all the same principles for creating art. It also has sculpting, drawing and maths – it has all the art forms combined. You have to draw a building before you actually start building. And buildings are the highest form of sculpture. Back in the day, [many] famous painters, or artists were also architects. There are a lot of shared principles between both.

NM: During the pandemic, for a lot of artists, there was this boom in their creative production. Was that the case for you? 

AD: I definitely created more art (CG). For me, everything is art. During the pandemic, I was sort of reminded of when I was younger [during the electricity cuts], and so I created more. I loved being in my own bubble. If you want to be an artist, you have to have the mindset that you’re always in a pandemic (*laughs). It’s the best environment to create but not a lot of people know that. Actually, Isaac Newton, who invented calculus, did it during a pandemic. I was inspired when I read his story. And it was during the pandemic, that I came up with SneakerHead – that’s the series that got the most recognition. 

NM: What does it mean to be an artist?

AD: You gather all the information that you’ve learned in your life, everything that makes your character [what it is], and you add it in whatever it is you do with freedom. I learnt that from Hip-Hop. Music, for me, is key to creativity and to emotion in general. When I’m being creative, I always play the right music; I have a playlist to put me in that mindset. And I gather pictures and music that inspire the world I’m creating. 

NM: Do your Middle Eastern roots influence your art? 

AD: Now, as I’m getting good at digital art, I want to start bringing the Middle Eastern touch to it. It’s really hard, because first, I need to understand how to create Western art before I can start adding the Middle Eastern flair to it. I want to make Middle Eastern art visible. I believe we have a long history with art, so I would love to bring that to this community, and figure out how I can implement the uniqueness of our style.  

Ali sets the stage for his art by creating an environment that inspires the world in which his art comes to life. While much of his inspiration is sourced from his experiences in life, Ali mentions two contemporary artists that have had an influence on his shift to 3-D art: Antony Tudisco, a German graphic artist, and Daniel Arshem, a contemporary artist who dabbles in sculpting and furniture design. Taking a look at all three of these artists’ works (Daniel, Antony and Ali), a theme seems to take shape. All three of these talented individuals infuse a futuristic vibe into their work, one that is both exhilarating and captivating to its audience. Where Daniel is concerned, Ali explains that, “his story inspired me to be myself, and be there for my art.”