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The Real Deal with Abdullah Qandeel

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By Abeer Arjani and Jou Pabalate

There’s no denying that at 26 years old, Saudi artist Abdullah Qandeel is the art scene’s man of the hour. What’s the deal with Qandeel?

Abdullah Qandeel spent his formative years in one of the oldest boarding schools in the world, King’s School in Canterbury, UK. He then entered the renowned Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Living in Kansas, Qandeel found his passion taking a serious turn. He was accustomed to the big metropolitan city life and so the change gave him the opportunity to delve deeper into his art. When he felt ready to take on a career as an artist, he packed his bags and moved to New York armed with $200 and a vision.

“I’m going to be ‘It.’ I’m going to be the artist,” he said. Qandeel admits that his path to becoming what he is today isn’t reflective of the starving artist journey. While he worked hard in his Brooklyn studio over the course of his four-year stay in New York, he said, “I went out there, I met with the right people. You have to network as an artist. I am grateful to have met with individuals who opened a lot of doors.”

Qandeel got his first big break when the founder of the SemArt gallery, Safia El Malqui, included his work in an art show during the Monaco Grand Prix. He was also commissioned by the Saudi Mission to the UN to do a solo exhibition at the Waldorf Astoria in 2012, in celebration of Saudi National Day. One of his works, “Kingdom of Love” was gifted by Saudi Arabia to the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.

His first series, “Open vs. Closed” debuted in New York in 2013. It was a vivid introduction to the type of messages Qandeel wishes to explore — universal and emotional charged themes.

As Eve Therond, art journalist and consultant noted, “Abdullah Qandeel’s paintings stand like intense emotional incidents, unleashing his deepest primitive part and emptying the stored emotional energy.”

It was the self-portrait from this series entitled, “The Enemy Within” that garnered the record-breaking sale for Qandeel at Sotheby’s. The painting was valued at an auction estimate of $20,000 – 30,000.

Qandeel’s clientele consists of prominent collectors and key figures both locally and abroad. His works now hang on the walls of Prince Waleed bin Talal, Charles Rockefeller, Kanye West and the like. He claims to be very selective of his collectors.

“Wherever I am today, it wasn’t handed to me, I worked hard to deserve it. I live by the Kaizen mantra, continuous change and self-improvement. I will out do myself and share my message to anyone who will listen”.

Qandeel knows that as an artist he is in position to affect positive social development in the art scene.

“I am in dialogue with key figures in our government and in those conversations, my eyes have been opened to how hard our leaders are working to develop the Kingdom,” Qandeel said. “In terms of art, there is still much to be done. The private sector needs to invest in good Saudi artists; we need to channel some attention towards creating more galleries and institutions. It’s a lot of work but we have to be patient and dedicated.”

When asked exactly how he plans to get started with such initiatives, he replies with a grin, “Expect a public exhibition really soon. It’s a surprise.”

Indeed, Qandeel has gained criticisms as much as he had earned praises for his work and recent activities. The artist is well aware of this and charges it to the price of doing what he loves in the way he has done it.

“At the end of the day, I value my clients and the people who put their trust in me and they can be assured that I will wake up every morning and do my best,” he said.

I treat my artworks as my children. When they’re sold, I feel a natural high similar to that of a parent proud of their child’s milestones. — Abdullah Qandeel

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