Fusing Western, Maghreb identities to inspire novel artforms
COMBO, a French street artist born to a Lebanese-Christian father and a Moroccan-Muslim mother, has created a unique art form inspired by the fusion of his Western and North African identity.
His first solo London exhibition Our Home (Darna) is at the Sulger-Buel Gallery in South East London which specialises in the contemporary art of Africa and its diaspora. COMBO explores the issue of identity and shows that two cultures can co-exist in a happy symbiosis.
"Influenced by a fun pop art sense of humour with glimmers of cynicism, COMBO acts as a public commentator who is rejoicing in his hybrid identity"
The focal point of the exhibition is a large dining table with Moroccan ceramic items next to European and American popular consumer products like Kellogg’s Frosties and Heinz Baked Beans, showing the interconnected realities as they sit innocently side by side. There is also a Moroccan fez designed by the artist with the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club logo and beer bottles styled with tassels.
His most famous graffiti work to date has been the CoeXist project in which the artist campaigned for religious tolerance by a visual text incorporating the signs of the three Abrahamic faiths: a Muslim crescent (for the letter c), a star of David for the X and a Christian cross for the T.
He was beaten up and attacked in 2015 whilst painting a wall at Porte Dorée near Paris as part of the project.
“After that incident, I needed to have the cops with me when I was painting. It was very strange to be helped by the police,” COMBO said when talking about the incident.
Reflecting on his identity he said: “I am a French artist living in Paris. People say that I am Muslim doing political art. Actually, I am - and I am not. I am more French than I am Muslim.
"My paintings are always about difference, which I like to portray because I believe that when you paint something in the street you have an impact on the community. I tried to make a co-exist logo in Paris with the Muslim crescent, the Jewish star and the Christian cross, painted in Paris and in other cities in France as well as in different countries. It was all about peace and love and it was good to see something different, something about these religions that you don’t see in the media.”
But COMBO has not returned to the co-exist theme. “That for me was the topic during a certain moment [after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris]. I need to paint something new every day to have an impact.”
Whether referencing current events or tackling controversial themes, COMBO is a master at ‘kidnapping’ cultural motifs that have historical or contemporary significance and then manipulating them in such a way that encourages or provokes one to think about underlying concepts, such as freedom, civil liberties, capitalism, consumerism, religion and extremist politics.
Advocating peace, harmony and diversity, COMBO said: “My pieces work in a disruptive way, they surprise. They are where they shouldn’t be.”
Expressing a humanistic ethos, COMBO’s projects are a reflection of significant travels around the world in which he chooses to engage in as an artist.
In 2012 he infiltrated the forbidden area of Chernobyl to post advertising posters denouncing nuclear energy. In 2013, he posted Google pages in Hong Kong that had been banned by the communist party, including the arrest of artist Ai Weiwei. Later in Beirut, Lebanon he posted ‘Less Hamas, More Hummus’ and, at the start of 2017, he parodied posters of the candidates for the French presidential election.
"COMBO acts as a public commentator who is rejoicing in his hybrid identity"
The exhibition’s curator Najlaa El-Ageli commented that influenced by a fun pop art sense of humour with glimmers of cynicism, COMBO acts as a public commentator who is rejoicing in his hybrid identity.
“The purpose of his practice is to advocate peace, harmony and diversity and to challenge all stereotypes. He presents it in a playful way with the mixture of his two cultures, bringing a new perspective to them," El-Ageli said.
"There is a lot of hope and optimism in his work. It is about the future and how we will all accept our various identities. In his work he pushes the margins, but when you see him he is very well behaved and eloquent. He is a family man with a wife and son, so it is interesting to see these two sides to COMBO: his work and his private life.
"He was raised by his mother as his father died when he was very young, so you can see her influence in his work. She was at the exhibition on the opening night and you could see how he looks up to her and how proud she is of him. You can see the female influence in his work and his outlook on life.”
After graduating from the National School of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson in Nice, COMBO focused on graffiti art in the French Riviera, spending some years experimenting with spray paint.
After a short stint working as an art director for advertising agencies in Paris, he decided to dedicate himself to street art and is developing his unique style by 2012.
Ever since his first piece at the age of 16, his artistic style has involved familiar elements from comic books, cartoons, and video games, mixed with other iconic images, manipulated according to what he wants to express.
COMBO has held five solo exhibitions, one in the United Kingdom and four in France. He has also participated in group exhibitions in France, Spain, Germany, Morocco and Switzerland.
Karen Dabrowska is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on the Middle East and Islamic Affairs. She is also the author of ten books. Her latest, biography, Mohamed Makiya: A Modern Architect Renewing Islamic Tradition was published by Al-Saqi in July