Interview with Maria Iqbal: Living with pop art

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic visits Maria Iqbal’s Atelier in Dubai where every piece of furniture sparks a great conversation.

From her studio in Dubai’s Jumeirah, Maria Iqbal, an Afghan-American artist, creates and transforms everything from chairs and chests to handbags, walls and clothes. Her studio is an explosion of colours, textiles, and concepts and her creations are functional works of hand painted art, deeply influenced by pop culture, irreverent humour, travel, and societal trends.

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Born in Kabul and raised in Dubai, Iqbal grew up in a traditional Afghan family, immersing herself in the world of books and Bollywood movies.

“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” Iqbal starts her story, telling us she moved to the US where she received a Bachelor’s degree from The College of William and Mary in Virginia and a graduate degree in Art Direction from Miami Ad School. In next 10 years, she pursued her career as an art director in advertising agencies in Chicago and a year in Mumbai.

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“I was still in the advertising industry when I moved to India. The advertising world in India was doing really creative work at that time. Every artist or designer should go to India since it is such an inspiring place, which I describe as food for one’s soul.”

Although she loved working in advertising, her heart remained attached to art, so she decided to move back home to Dubai in 2011 and founded Maria Iqbal Art.

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“When I was growing up here, Dubai was still developing and there wasn’t much here. I lived in my own world. When you think about art, you think New York, Berlin, Paris; you would never think Dubai. But I’ve realised there is this amazing energy to take the country to the next level; they are open to new ideas and for an artist this is an amazing platform to create.”

Her father used to be in the interior design business and had a whole warehouse of classic, antique chairs, gathering dust in the corner of an attic. She stripped and sanded the frames and gave them a new coat of paint.

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“I started Maria Iqbal Art by refurbishing and transforming chairs, then moving on to larger pieces and eventually fully customised furniture. This continues to be a passionate part of my work since it’s art that you can live and interact with on a daily basis. To complement the custom pieces, I also produce capsule collections of cushions and other home décor items on a limited scale.”

Iqbal says she became a pop artist by accident. “While I was developing my own style, it always involved lots of bold colours and I was always inspired by a pop culture. I try to capture what’s happening around me.”

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Iqbal’s creations send eye-catching messages in a clever, snappy way and are constantly evolving to reflect our fast-paced, consumer-centric world. As a former advertising creative, Iqbal still thinks in slogans and is attracted to words, humour, and faces that are famous in popular culture.

“In advertising you have a very short window to get your message across and to attract people to buy your products from millions of others. So, when I set out to do my artwork, I wanted to incorporate my professional background and people really responded well to the idea of mixing art with advertising. It is funny and catches the attention.”

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Each of her functional creations represents a conversation between her and the collector. Iqbal says she loves to make things that tell a story.

“When you think about it, we spent most of our lives sitting on chairs, so why not make them more personal and unique? Sometimes I take the piece that already exists and build different features on it to give it a certain character or I would build it from scratch.”

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Most of her work is commissioned, predominantly by private clients. Sharing her long term plans, Iqbal says she would love to collaborate with established brands and tap into the hospitality sector, offering bespoke pieces, which can be a great compliment to a hotel’s narrative.

“Nowadays, if you don’t take a picture of a hotel you visited and post it on social media, it means it didn’t happen. When you look at boutique hotels around a world, they all have those unique, statement pieces that tell the story about the locality, about the brand and its values. For me as an emerging artist, that kind of collaboration is a win-win situation. I get to exhibit my work in a beautiful space and reach to people on a larger scale and they get unique artwork.”

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Iqbal says that social media is a great platform and an open window to all Arab women to share their message.

“I’m getting e-mails and messages from women of all ages from the Middle East who are inspired by my story and I would like to think that my work gives them some courage to stand up and speak their voices. 10 years ago, my story wouldn’t be as easily transported. If you have a voice, something new to offer, it is easy to stand out here and be discovered as opposed to saturated markets, such as New York,” she says.

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For Iqbal, the journey has just begun.

“I am an Afghan woman, but I’ve never identified myself just by my background. I’ve been raised in Dubai, which is such a diverse and multicultural environment; I went to college and worked in the US; I travelled the world. I’m inspired and have a great respect for today’s modern Arab women. I identified with that.”

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