Spotlight: Tarek Shafagoj⁠

image of artist Tarek Shafagoj sitting in front of his painting collection Women of the East
Image Credit: Tarek Shafagoj

From drawing on Post It notes in his grandmother’s home to having two paintings in Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan’s private collection, Tarek Shafagoj’s provocative artworks have quietly made him a sought-after artist in countries around the world.

“My grandmother was the first one who made me feel good about drawing when I was a child. She’d always ask me what I was doing and if she could keep them once I was done. Each scribble went into the vault in her home, which made me feel that my work was something special to be treasured,” the Dubai-based artist told Creativity Undefined.

Those familiar with Tarek’s style can easily spot his unique artworks, and focus on female subjects, combine pop art, digital art, and a touch of surrealism.

“I love women; I’m a Grade A feminist. Growing up, I saw how hard they have it but no matter what, they never fail,” the Jordanian/Spanish artist said, explaining that he was surrounded by strong women – his grandmother, mother, and two older sisters – while growing up. “They were my first inspirations and my work is an indirect tribute to them.”

This is evident in his latest collection, “Women of the East”, which showcase Middle Eastern women in a trendy, modern way as a tribute to the women in his life.

“I wanted these [artworks] to showcase women’s strength by focusing on them in a positive and affirming way,” Tarek said.

The 10 piece collection was first showcased at the DIFC Art Nights at the Dubai International Financial Centre in November 2019. Over 4,000 visited the event and a week later, as a result his participation, Shafagoj managed to sell out of the pieces and receive commissions, including providing artwork for an Emaar project in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“I was working with a client who was in charge of the [DIFC] Art Nights. I always wanted to be a part of it but never thought that I’d have an opportunity to participate because they are very selective of who gets to be showcased there,” Tarek said, adding: “I sent my submission and was approved…they also gave me a great spot near the entrance that helped me generate buzz for my work.”

Prior to his growing acclaim in Dubai, Shafagoj began his journey as a professional artist in Amman, Jordan, where he was showcased in various exhibitions.

“I went to The Studio to ask if I could be exhibited there. I was asked to be a part of an exhibition [Art for Sale 2nd Edition],” Tarek said. His pop art style painting that featured Abdul Halim, Umm Kalthoum, and Fairouz was sold to the artist’s amazement.

He began receiving commissions soon afterwards, one of which led to another fortuitous opportunity.

“I was renovating the home of a client and they asked me to do a piece for them. One night, during a dinner party, they were asked who created the displayed painting, which led to me being approached to do an exhibition at the Artisana Gallery 14 in Amman,” Shafagoj said.

He submitted 12 pieces for the event and managed to sell four on opening night. Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan acquired two that are displayed at his London home, according to Tarek,

“It was a mind-blowing experience….now, I’m blessed to be able to showcase my work in Düsseldorf, London, Beirut, Prague, Dubai, Amman, and Jeddah. Basically, there are pieces of me everywhere,” he said, chuckling.

Shafagoj moved to Dubai in 2015 to continue pursuing his career in Interior Design. A year later, he received devastating news during a trip home – he had Stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma. It is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system.

“I started experiencing some symptoms but ignored them, like chest pains that I thought were because of the gym and itching that I thought was because of the soap I used,” he said, noting that if he had gone to the doctor earlier than cancer would have been caught and treated quickly.

Instead, he went to the doctor only after feeling a lump, only to receive the devastating news. It took a year of intensive treatment.

“I was in shock and denial when I first got the news. I was rushed into surgery and then started my treatment that included chemotherapy and radiation,” Tarek, who remains cancer-free, said.

During that time, he found himself wanting to paint but feeling frustrated that he was too weak to do so. Once Shafagoj received the all-clear from his doctor, he returned to Dubai with a changed mindset.

“It’s been several years since my last exhibition but I’m not going to do events like that again unless I’m moved to do it. I want to focus on creating art that moves people,” he explained.

This mental shift would prove useful as he returned to work and managed to land a position in an artistic organisation in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 forced another lifestyle and mental shift.

“Creativity for me is on the rise. The positive thing about this situation is that it allowed us to slow down and assess [what’s important to us],” Tarek said.

He managed to created several new pieces during time in lock down that are in response to what’s happening and encouraging people to stay home. One of these, a hybrid camel-unicorn (right), was donated to an autism centre after they reached out to him.

Tarek also acknowledged that the pandemic has affected the artistic community, especially indie creators: “It’s definitely been a tough time for the art community. People think of art as a luxury so it’s the first thing that got cut when the pandemic hit. But it’s a good time for artists to get creative and build their profile on social media.”

He further observed: “We’re currently in a plateau and those who are in for just recognition and money won’t really last. Others can be fueled and inspired to try out different directions.”

Another incident that resulted in an expressive reaction from Shafagoj was the devastating Beirut Blast on August 4, 2020, that resulted in massive destruction, injuries, and more. He created the mournful piece below in a gesture of solidarity for those affected.

In the meantime, Tarek, like everyone else, is focusing on getting through the current situation. When asked if he had any plans post-pandemic, he said: “I’m not sure to be honest. One thing’s for sure though, I want to make art more accessible…I’m the type of person who will be happy to give you a painting if you tell me that you like it. I won’t think twice; I’ll tell you: ‘take it.'”

To learn more about Tarek, please visit: https://tarekshafagoj.com/

You can also follow him on Facebook and Instagram

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