Ahmad Shariff is an American artist who works with different media. He primarily paints portraits on a variety of mix-media, including music sheets, newspapers, and old book pages in an effort to recycle, repost, and reflect on both the past and the present. We interviewed him in his beautiful home and studio in Rancho Cucamonga. He begins by describing an unfinished painting hanging in his garage.
The painting is still wet but the whole concept is based on the premise that people love to collect Coco Chanel (perfume bottle paintings). Such paintings typically sell for three and four thousand dollars and higher. Some folks have this fascination with pop-art based on nostalgia, humor and possibly hidden meaning. I look at it and see it as pretty, but also search for that deeper meaning. It’s never as simple nor as complex as a bottle of perfume. Considering historical context while combining current trends and news, I thought to add a dose of irony, meaning, and attention to issues that are deserving of it but requiring a different forum.
Other artists, street artists, they might use a weapon and something like a flower in it, like Banksy. I wanted to do something different because I noticed that nobody does the Coco Channel (other than just Coco Chanel). What inspires me to finish it up fast, because this has been in my head for awhile, is what happened days ago to the young African American man, Stephan Clark, that was shot down by police in his own backyard while carrying a cellphone, not a gun, and certainly not a perfume bottle.
I had not noticed the label reads "Black Lives Matter."
Yes, and you see all these sheets in the back are all statistics (points at the paper he used as a canvas). It is hard to read but they are statistics from Black Lives Matter. There are (statistics on) crime, students, everything! If you go through each paper it will represent something. I wanted to put that out there and find a way to honor the senseless loss of all these lives. What I am going to do is post this on two websites: vangoart.com/ahmadshariff and saatchiart.com. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go straight to the Stephan Clark family.
Wow, that is really great of you.
That was just for them. A few people asked me if I was marketing Black Lives Matter as a materialistic thing and my response was, "No! It is the opposite – this disparaging loss of life cannot continue!"
We planned on asking you about political art or art that raises social awareness. You have already gotten into that.
I started art for a totally different reason (not politics). I have always been an activist when things are not right and a stand is necessary. We have to stand loud, aloud and speak against any injustice; human rights abuses, animal abuses, environmental, etc., But the thing is, I have a huge following and most of my followers are not necessarily in the political arena. On my Twitter I speak out in opposition against what is going on but not on Instagram because I don't want to alienate any of my followers as these could potentially just be setting out to preview art and enjoy it on a light-hearted basis. But I am fed up in many ways as a father, husband and ultimately, human being. Especially after the most recent school shootings – violence and easy access to guns permeate our society. I want to do something on the side just for that.
Normally, I love to paint with ink and it is mostly what I work with. You know the calligraphy ink that they use to dip the pen in? Indian ink is what I use. It is waterproof so once it hits the paper, that's it! You cannot erase it so it requires precision and craft that needs meticulous attention. You really have to work it but that is what I love to work with (Indian ink).
What we first noticed about your work is that you paint on music sheets or old book pages. Would you tell us about that?
I collect a lot of books and what I started doing is going to the libraries and different areas where they are just throwing books away because they are damaged. They are ripped, or old, and I felt bad. I wanted to give them back their life and the meaning of the books. I would never rip a brand new book. What I do is go every month through all the old books they are getting rid of and I use them depending on what is the meaning of the book. I did one that is a little bit political. I read the title of the book and a few pages and was inspired to do it (painting he later showed us).
A lot of times I use just music sheets. Additionally, I use books in the context of just telling a different story (than what he is painting) but I feel it is good enough for what I am doing. Also, I use old books because everyone paints on just canvas. Everyone paints on just regular paper. I like mixed media and it is very hard to print on paper of books. On those pages it is not easy at all. Like now, you see how this one is a little bit off and weird (pointing to paper folded over and partly creased)? This will get pressed later on and will look as straight as these over here (pointing at smoother looking pressed paper).
It appears as if it folds up on you and does not absorb the paint.
Yes, exactly! What I'll do is just wet it with water and then just press it and let it sit for about eight to twelve hours. Once that happens, it will come out pretty nice and straight. Thereafter, I just roll it up, and it still needs to be trimmed. I roll it up and ship it in tubes.
I found a bunch of books about Picasso that I had not previously read and felt inspired enough that it moved me to create and paint.
I see that. I am reading the writing on the book pages you used for this painting (another painting hanging in his garage).
I felt inspired but I don't do a lot of abstract art. I couldn't get myself to get into something like Picasso's work. There’s only one Picasso, but I can try to honor his love of the arts by respecting all venues.
That is a very good painting. Something to be proud of!
Thank you! I have been doing it for a while. This one here is still a work in progress (four panel painting of The Beatles). I am not even showing this yet because it is not even halfway done. I started it with books and then I went to spray cans. I will then do acrylics, some wash, some other effects, maybe some markers, some calligraphy in the background. It is like a nightmare job that I am working on because the Beatles are icons and they need to be properly honored.
We read about you attending the Art Institute of Lebanon. What did you study there?
I studied Interior architecture. And I studied art for three years in between. It was a five-year degree. I started working as a 3-D animator for billboards. Back then, billboards used to be a new thing in the early nineties. We used to do everything with animation because it was cheaper (than photos) and the resolution for photos wasn't that great. It used to only be 256 colors and the funny part is that a huge billboard as huge as a garage door would only have 80 light-bulb and each once as a pixel. You can imagine, you would only have about 80 pixels this way.....
So very limited?
So the screen is this size (points to the size of his garage). So if you go close to it, you are not going to see anything. You have to be about a mile away so that you can see it really good. I started as an animator and then I started doing more graphic designs.
When I was still studying I used to do 3D perspective renderings. That is how I got into 3D Studios and AutoCAD software. I used to do a lot of freelance perspectives.
Perspectives in this sense being where you draw a view of a building from a specific angle?
Yes, the architect will have everything on a blueprint and in a means to sell the project he will have a 3D perspective made to show what the building will eventually look like. I started working doing this as a freelance artist while in school. From there, I started doing animation. And from there, I started doing graphic design. When I moved to the US in 1995...
Oh, so all this is happening in Lebanon?
Yes, during the war.
We wanted to ask you about the war. But, we didn't know how much you wanted to talk about that.
It’s a very upsetting and sad period of time, but yes, we can talk about.
From what we read, it seems like you grew up during the war.
Yes, I was born in 1971 so the war started in 1975. When I started to figure out what was going on around me, all I could see is war. We've seen everything. We have seen death, smelled death, been starved and yet survived. We were bombed. Our house got bombed with bullet holes everywhere and it was a nightmare but we lived in it because we didn't have any other option.
Was it daily, constant fire?
Well, sometimes there is a week or two of ceasefire but not that much. And then it goes again because there were several wars happening at the same time. You had a couple of militias fighting each other. And then the Palestinians were fighting Israel. Israel was hitting us from every border. There was also the Muslims and the Christians battling it out.
A lot of factions. Did the Lebanese people migrate to Syria to escape?
Yes, and now the Syrian people are going to Lebanon. My parents made sure to shelter us from all this. We didn't participate in any of the stuff. We stayed away from all militias. They were in our neighborhood. You are always worried if you are going to get beat up. You see so many things.
How many years did this last?
There is still stuff going on but that was until the mid nineties.
Through your entire adolescence and childhood?
Yes, it is crazy because we would go for a month or two months to school and then three or four months no school because of the war. A lot of people would leave Lebanon, or those who could afford it would. We couldn't afford it ourselves. In eighty-two we were the only family in a nine block radius.
Because everyone left?
Everyone left to the mountains because Israel was bombing our area.
This is Beirut correct?
Yes. You go outside in the balcony and it is just as you see now in the futuristic movies where there is no one. You can't see any light and you can't hear anyone, just animals. It is a vacant city, like a ghost city. It is just amazing that a city of hundreds of thousands of people can be left with just no one. Lebanon the country has about three million people. It felt like the apocolyptic – straight out of a zombie movie.
Do you remember it all vividly?
Of course! When this militia attacked the marines (American) I remember we spent the whole day out there. We were teenagers and we became good friends with a marine unit stationed on the beach. The marines would show us all these letters from their families and loved ones, it was pretty cool. The next day I woke up to a huge bomb sound. It was later revealed to be a suicide attack next to the airport targeting the marines. They killed over two-hundred people.
No! US marines. I woke up from that bomb. The New Jersey (American battleship) started bombing Beirut trying to get the militia that claimed responsibility. I remember that the bombing didn't stop for few days.
We didn't have a shelter under our building. Some of the buildings had a shelter where you could go underground. We didn't have that. We were living on the fifth floor and we escaped to the fourth floor. We could hear rockets hitting on top. So, we went to the second floor and all of a sudden we got hit with a huge rocket. We were about twenty-five people sitting in the hallway. All you see is just red and can hear a "uuuuuu" sound. It was crazy!
I think I was about twelve or thirteen years old and we woke up fifteen or twenty minutes later with a bunch of injuries but nothing fatal. The all-metal elevator doors we were standing next to were completely blown out from the pressure. I remember it vividly. Luckily nothing happened to us. Our shadow was still on the wall where we were standing. That was a nightmare that you can never forget!
Do you reflect these experiences in your art work?
Yes, in the faces. I love to paint portraits and I love to have emotion showing. I don't care if they are nude or not as long as it is the emotion that I want to deposit (represent) in a way. I don't want to paint destruction or people dying. I've seen a lot of this (war). So I’d rather focus on surviving…the living. Some of the dramatic effects of human nature and the emotion is what I love to paint. You don't see a lot of my people laughing.
Now that you mention it, I am thinking and I agree that you don't.
Not a lot of happiness but a lot of soft or a lot of things going on.
I moved here in ninety-five and I started working as a graphic designer. I then opened up my own printing shop for printing and marketing. I owned it for about eight or nine years and then I sold it out. I went to work for Verizon in marketing in the yellow pages. But, I wanted to change my career completely to somehow get out of the graphics so I joined the DoD.
That is a very big change.
Yes, I served almost three years in Iraq. All over, but mostly in Iraq. I had a great unit with great people. We worked together in a small base. And we were within that in an even smaller base by ourselves. All you would see is this group of people every year and that is it. We were there to help rebuild. Until I got injured.
You were there three years away from your family?
No. No. You cannot have family there. I would come over during Christmas time and spend about twenty days with them and then go back.
The painting there of the woman holding a Palestinian flag, is that your work?
Yes, it was commissioned. It is the work of a Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout. I have added my own take on it to make it my own because I don't want to just copy the artist's work even though it is based on what he did.
It is a beautiful painting.
Thank you, it is still drying. It has been drying for over a year now because I did not use any drying agent. I have been painting professionally for about two years now and am still learning the qualities and characteristics of the different types of paints and surfaces.
We thought you had been painting for much longer because of the quality of your work. Could you tell us how your career as an artist's began?
A couple of years ago I attended an art gallery in Claremont, California. I met Victor Anthony and was fascinated by his art. He encouraged me to paint and with the support and encouragement of my wife I started doing this. We are still in touch today.
That's great. Southern California provides a lot of opportunity for artists. Is it the same in Lebanon? Could you speak to us about your immigration experience?
There is not as much opportunity in Lebanon, that is why we immigrated to the US. My brother left Lebanon in eighty-three at the age of seventeen to study in California. He was supposed to meet with friends of the family who would guide him and help him settle. He did not find the people who were supposed to help him but he persevered. He enrolled in school and found employment at KFC. From there, he continued working and is now a vice president of operations/partner for 26 Panera restaurants.
I immigrated in ninety-five and lived with my brother a couple of years. It was very hard for me to leave Lebanon because my parents are of Indian descent. I would have to apply for a student visa every year. It was very stressful for me and my family to have to line up and request permission to remain in Lebanon. I was without a country in a sense. As I got older, I kept applying for visas to study in the United States. I applied in Greece and different countries and my application kept being denied. Even when my visa was approved, the Lebanese authorities made it very difficult for me to leave. They would not let me board the airplane because my passport did not have a return date. I tried to explain to them that I was not planning on returning but they still would not allow me to board. They finally allowed me to get on after an hour of convincing, I was so relieved.
I am grateful for the opportunity I have in the United States. My family and my children live in a secure city and have one of the best educational opportunities that would not be available to them in Lebanon. My wife and I are raising our children with strong values, responsibility and a desire to give back, elevate and contribute to the country and planet.
Thank you Ahmad for having us in your home and studio. Your home is like a museum because of your beautiful collection of art.