Realism Meets Pop Art - Rasha Eleyan in an Interview

July 2, 2020

Born in Dubai to Palestinian parents, Rasha Eleyan has developed a truly unique aesthetics that combines classical style with a love of cartoons. From early childhood, she was mentored by her father, the great Palestinian artist Nasr Abdelaziz Eleyan, in the art of drawing and oil painting.

Beginning her artistic career as an illustrator, Eleyan worked for Walt Disney Television in Singapore, which had a tremendous influence on her career and life as an artist. Drawing inspiration from architecture, culture and current events, whether from her Middle Eastern origins or her home in southeast Asia, she merges hyperrealistic elements and pop art references.

We had a chat with Rasha Eleyan to find out more about her artistic practice. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, she talks about her inspiration, Disney cartoons, the contrasting dynamics in her works, recurring motifs and much more.

Left: Rasha Eleyan - 195th Member (Zaghrouta) / Right: Rasha Eleyan - The Gardens of Death

Rasha Eleyan - The Influences

Widewalls: Your work combines realistic elements with pop art references. What informed this style?

Rasha Eleyan: Since I was little, I have been a big fan of Disney movies, and as a kid, my favorites were the ones that combined animation with live-action. I was almost obsessed. No, I was entirely obsessed with the idea of a wonderfully colourful world where I can interact with amazing, non-sensical over the top characters, with whom I would argue their twisted logic in long-winded conversations. A world that did not abide by the rules of physics or anything that constitutes as "the social norm". I wanted so badly to walk into that world.

The Disney obsession stayed with me for several years and lasted into my late teens. And I believe that it shaped my style as an artist today as it now has a significant influence on what visually excites me when I allow my realistic figures to occupy that fantasy setting.

Widewalls: You were raised in Dubai to Palestinian parents, studied in Jordan and Italy and you now live in Singapore. How have these different cultural influences affected your work?

RE: When you are born Palestinian, you are born into a lingering feeling of frustrated unresolved reality, accompanied with a tremendous sense of identity. In my opinion, many Palestinian artists are born with a built-in nagging inspiration to resist. For me, no matter what subject attracts my inspiration at a moment in time, I always find myself going back to wanting and needing to make one more painting of Palestine.

In a sense, I am lucky that I know what drives me as an artist. Still, I also could not have been any more fortunate to have the opportunity to have experienced a combination of countries to call home at different times in my life.

Growing up in Dubai meant that I was open to the cultures of the whole Arab world. Dubai is a hub that attracts expats from everywhere. I feel a close connection to Emiratis, Egyptians, Lebanese, Tunisians etc. I understand accents and know the traditions of the Arab world. This knowledge is not something other Arabs experience when they grow up and spend their whole lives in one country.

When the Arab Spring began, I felt a close connection to the women and men in the streets, because they all looked and sounded like the close friends I had grown up with in Dubai. As humans, we are usually somewhat detached from others misfortunes if they are even slightly different from us - or if the conflict is not happening in our backyard. To me, everyone who was in the streets demanding equality in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen all looked and felt familiar to me. There was a connection. And I have my childhood in Dubai to thank for that.

My father is Palestinian artist Nasr Abdelaziz. Having a famous artist for a parent meant I was immersed in the Jordanian and Middle Eastern art scene from a young age. I met many prominent Palestinian artists and was introduced to art by great Iraqi and Egyptian artists. Still, I have Singapore to thank for giving me the opportunity to experience the international contemporary art scene. If it weren't for major art fairs that are almost exclusive to modern first-world cities, I would have struggled to be confident with my painting style. 

My subject matter is undeniably Arabic. I'm still a pop artist because I have been an illustrator all my life. I have always painted cartoons and used a colour palette that has accompanied me since my childhood. It is far from the colour palettes usually found in paintings from the Middle East which are more earthy in tone. I found confidence and legitimacy in my chosen style because I was lucky enough to be in a city like Singapore.

Although I am a pop artist, the artists who have influenced me most are the renaissance masters. As a child, I used to spend hours focusing on pictures of paintings and sculptures in the books in my father's library. I fixated on La Pieta by Michelangelo the most as I claimed my place in the world as an artist. 

I lived in Rome for a time, and had the unique pleasure of seeing the masterpieces first hand. It was here that I realised the impact of seeing the realistic figures up close. It became clear to me that I wanted very much to create that same impact in my work. Realistic figures don't come easily to me. I work hard to achieve them. But it's worth it because I'm happy to serve my craft. Once I finish a painting, I can feel their presence in the room with me.

Widewalls: Disney cartoons also served as a formative experience for you. Could you tell us more about this?

RE: Disney has had a life-changing impact on my life. The first time was when I was a child and saw Tinkerbell on television. She was flying and touched the top of the Disney castle with her wand. I was mesmerised by the fairy dust, and I believed in the magic of the wonderful world of Disney.

My father studied animation and had many Disney books in his library, so I copied all the cartoons in them and was good at it. After that, I declared that one day I would work for the Disney company. Luckily I got my wish in 2001 when I worked for Disney Television in Singapore. It was here where I learned firsthand the importance of the efforts and dedication Disney demands to stay true to its brand.

If you want something to be exceptional, you have to have the passion to push yourself and put in the hours to achieve it.

Left: Rasha Eleyan - Mind the Gap (The Gold Hotel) / Right: Rasha Eleyan - The Emperor's New Clothes

The Element of Surprise

Widewalls: Your works often depict serious subject matter through a colorful and cheerful aesthetics. What do you think this contrasting dynamic evokes in a viewer?

RE: I love the element of surprise. But the truth is, the "surprise" seems to be just a lucky thing that my paintings seem to accomplish. I paint the subject as I see it in my mind.

For example, in my Mind the Gap - The Gold Hotel painting, I was inspired by the news story of the activist who was executed in his room in the impoverished Shiaa neighborhood. I painted a lavish, ostentatious Gold hotel on top of the grey and gloomy Shiaa neighborhood where the blood of innocent people was shed. In the painting, the blood seeps into the sea. The artwork looks so colourful and cheery when the subject matter is not. 

I like subtlety when delivering a message. The scene is horrific, yet our passive reaction to it doesn't match the urgency of the situation. More often than not, we don't seem to have the appropriate human response to it. I like to mirror this nonchalant passive reaction in my painting. It looks pleasant and colourful, but it's only if you decide to look again and ask questions that you will be able to actually see.

Widewalls: You often deal with socio-political themes, imbuing your works with subversive messages. What issues concern you the most?

RE: My biggest concern is that too many people don't recognise atrocities or feel the need to condemn unspeakable injustices unless the masses around them start a hashtag they can suddenly passionately join their voices to. Some injustices are inconceivable yet continue to happen because we allow them to. 

Widewalls: Singapore's Crimson Sunbird is a recurring motif in your work. Could you tell us something about the meaning behind it?

RE: I feel most at home in nature. I chose a very green neighborhood to live in Singapore. I keep the windows open and admire the greenery and feel privileged every single time I spot birds outside. I have a professional set of binoculars and a little birds of Singapore glossary book. If I spot a bird, I run to the balcony with my binoculars and book in hand, and I mark the bird in my book. It makes me happy.

The Crimson Sunbird is the Singapore national bird, and it is also undeniably beautiful. I think I paint it because it's my balance. I'm often consumed and frustrated by issues that I can't and don't want to let go of; the Crimson Sunbird brings my attention and awareness back to help me fight my anxieties.

Rasha Eleyan - Crimson Sunbird, Tea Cups

Plans and Projects

Widewalls: You are currently working on your 100 Years of Frustration series. What is this body of work about?

RE: The series title is inspired by the frustrations that I have faced throughout my life; whether through tradition, religion, the art market, being a woman, being a female artist, and most of all, the biggest frustration of all which is Palestine - and the lack of hope of resolve.

The collection is exclusively about Palestine, mostly highlighting impressive Palestinian women activists like Razan Al Najjar and Ahed Al Tamimi and the character of the mother of the martyr. It also addresses my frustration with stereotyping.

Through this series, I hope to show that Palestinian women are not timid nor silent.  

Widewalls: Could you tell us something about your working process?

RE: Whether it's a commission or a personal painting, it's always the same process. It always starts with research which I genuinely enjoy. I research hundreds of images and elements that I have in mind. As I do this, my painting composition starts forming in my head, but it is still as a rough idea.

This idea gives me direction for my actual sketch. I create my design between Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, and I paint my realistic elements from high-resolution photos that I try to take myself - unless the client can provide something suitable. My sketch is over 50% of the process. That's essential to my work process because everything I do on canvas whether pop art or realistic takes many hours of layering to achieve the result I'm after, so changes on canvas are incredibly time-consuming and I try to avoid them.

I struggled in the past with the fact that it takes me around a month of full-time work to finish a painting from beginning to end, but I soon learned that there are artists out there that produce their work at a similar pace and that you can't rush art.  

Widewalls: What's next for you?

RE: I want a voice, and to reach that I must work as hard as I can to get the recognition that artists want and crave. 

Featured image: Rasha Eleyan, Studio. All images courtesy of the artist and Addicted Art Gallery.

Follow These Artists

Rasha Eleyan

Follow These Galleries

Addicted Art Gallery

By Appointment Only, Singapore