Arts & CultureInterview

Graffiti artist ISL4M on celebrating Emirati culture, leaders and women

Discover how ISL4M is changing the local art scene, from spray painting the royal family to putting women in the frame.

ISL4M is nervous. He has rarely been interviewed, and is doing one of his first pieces of publicity with FACT. As the talented homegrown artist is currently exhibiting his work at Souk Al Bahar, he shares how he draws inspiration from the royal family, hip-hop artists and his own mum.

Born and raised in the UAE, his dad is Egyptian and his mum is Emirati. At 21 years old, he has already developed a signature style and subjects. He has cleverly taken a medium that is traditionally anti-establishment – graffiti often vandalises or marks territory, after all – and used it to celebrate the establishment. 

Proud of his identity, he is passionate about celebrating Emirati culture in his work. Plus, he has carved out a niche that you would not expect from a young man – painting local women, often older local women. He declares: “I want others to see how Emirati women are strong and confident.” 

The pieces on display include a portrait of the Founding Father and first President of the UAE, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and an image of an Emirati woman. The latter is an impressive two by five metres and he wants it to later go on display in a woman’s centre. Here, he chats about his journey, from teaching himself at home to exhibiting in the heart of Dubai. 

What’s the best thing about being an artist in the UAE?

It’s epic. You get people interested, as they see you and they want to know about you. In other countries, people may forget about you. Here, the people, government, schools and universities focus on art. 


What does the UAE offer you that you can’t get elsewhere?

I feel like everything that is in me is from the Emirates. My name is Egyptian, but I am not really Egyptian. My accent is not Egyptian, and I don’t look Egyptian. When people see me, they say: “You are an Emirati”. 

Why did you decide to become an artist?

I first started painting in school. I had a teacher and she taught me how to paint, use a pencil, canvas and colours. From that point, she inspired me and I thought: “I want to be an artist”. My big brother and aunt are artists. I was inspired by them, but also knew I wanted to be better than them. 

Where does your name ISL4M come from? 

My real name is Islam. I wanted to use it. I didn’t want a nickname. I want to show people, this is Islam, that’s it. 

What do you say to people who say spray painting or graffiti isn’t true art? 

Spray painting and graffiti are difficult. When I started, I wanted to see what type of medium should I use – acrylic, oil or spray. I chose spray painting. I started in my home, on my wall. There are no Emirati people doing spray paint or graffiti. I thought: “This will be epic, it is unusual”. 

Where do you get your inspiration from? 

I am inspired by hip-hop music. Hip-hop includes spray painting and street art, and I was inspired by these things. Ever since I was young, I have been listening to hip-hop music. I wanted to be like them. I like Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG and Fat Joe – there are too many artists. Plus, you get people like Banksy who go on the street to do their art.

In Islamic countries, tourists are warned against photographing local women and it’s rare to see images of local women in exhibitions. Why did you choose to paint an Emirati woman? 

When people hear about Dubai, they hear only about Dubai and not the UAE. Some people don’t know that there is Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Ajman. When they come to Dubai, they don’t see the Emirati culture. They see other nationalities everywhere in Dubai. I chose this, as it’s what my mother wears – a scarf and a burqa. I wanted to show it to people who don’t know the UAE culture. I am inspired by my mother.  

In your paintings of Arabic women, eyes are a focal point. Tell us more.

There was a period in my life when I was feeling something like depression. I was not talking to people and did not make eye contact. This is why I focus on the eyes. When I paint eyes, I want to do it with the small details. I love the eyes. The eyes can speak. You can speak to me with just eye contact without saying anything. 

You’ve also created a portrait of the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. What does it mean to you? 

People should know our government and our Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed. I chose this picture because we all love him; we all do everything for him. We can learn a lot from him, that’s why I chose his picture. He means everything to me. He means the father, the mother. He’s like the family.


Tell us about your future projects. 

I do projects for schools, restaurants and my own work on canvas and murals. When I started, nobody taught me. I taught myself by myself. So, I want to be a teacher, teaching people and inspiring people.

The exhibition runs until 31 October at Time Out Market Dubai.

GO: Follow @aimunit on Instagram for more information. 

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Kohinoor Sahota - Deputy Editor
A sucker for a good story, if you invite Kohinoor to a gallery, comedy night, new restaurant, hiking trip, cycle ride, pool day or just about any activity, preferably with the promise of wine, she’ll probably say yes – that is if she isn’t busy planning her next adventure.

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