Arts & Music, Popular Stories

Yousef and Soraya: Saudi Arabia’s Art Power Couple

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By Johara Almogbel

In the budding art scene of Saudi Arabia, artists like Soraya Darwish and Yousef Alshaikh are a rarity. Their passion for the arts and their awesome eye for talent makes both artists a force to be reckoned with.


Best of all, they have one of the most adorable back stories we have ever heard of! We got the opportunity to sit down with them and get behind the scene details about… well, everything.

Behold the magic!

How did you two meet?

Y: Answering this question always puts a smile on my face! Back in late 2009, I started a number of small collaborative side projects on Facebook. One of these projects was a part story-writing, part-illustration collaboration called “The Subgarfunkular Reprise.” Soraya was one of the first people to join this project when one of our mutual friends invited her. That was the beginning of our friendship and the very first milestone in building a beautiful relationship.

First time we met face to face was a short while later when I took a trip to Jeddah. Our first proper outing together was to the magical Al Balad district in Jeddah, which, to this day has a special place in my heart!

S: Back when Facebook was hip, this was the platform for connecting with people. I was also a member on DeviantArt.com and, if I remember correctly, he liked my work and sent me a friend request on Facebook. I participated in a couple of online collaborative activities he created and I recommended his page to a friend. Next thing you know, we both went to an exhibition by the British Council at Beit Bant in Jeddah’s Balad area.

 What do you think of each other’s art?

Y: What I love most about Soraya’s artwork is how honest it is. She has such a piercing and raw way with expression in her art. I hope to one day be able to express myself in such a personal and honest way.

S: I’ve always admired Yousef’s love for experimentation. I never met any other artist like that before and it really inspired me. I try my best to encourage him to make time to create because he is most alive when he does. I honestly believe his art is awesome and I do try very hard not to let my jealousy get to me.

How would you define the artistic aspect of your relationship?

Y: We are both artists at heart and everything we stand for relates to empowering self-expression in each other and others around us. Our life at the moment revolves around Onqoud, a creative incubator. Onqoud is all about bringing creatives together, so you can imagine most of our days are spent working on art that shapes both our professional and personal relationships.

S: Since his first visit to Jeddah, Yousef would always bring an artistic gift with him. He draws silly things to make me laugh and I always loved that. It’s always interesting to see the look on people’s faces when they’re going through my very dark sketchbook and suddenly they come across a funny drawing of a cat saying, “I love you.” I love telling people that this is what Yousef does to cheer me up and it’s one of the main things that made me fall in love with him!

 How do you click outside of art?

Y: Great question! Because most of our days are spent submerged in creative work, whenever we get free time we tend to spend it enjoying each other’s company doing simple things like sitting on the Corniche, spoiling our cats or watching a funny movie!

S: We love playing games like the guessing game where one thinks of something and the other has to guess it by just asking questions. Another one we’ve been playing recently is “Truth or Truth” rather than “Truth or Dare.”

yousef-soraya3-optimized How did Onqoud come to life?

Y: For me, it started at university when I cofounded “Shayirha,” a student club for sharing design ideas. I knew I wanted to take that passion and make it a central part of my life. Luckily, in 2012 Soraya, Mariam, and some other friends joined a startup incubation program at KAUST VentureLab, where they planted the seed behind Onqoud, and soon after, I joined as one of the co-founders.

S: This is a long story! In a nutshell, it was developed at KAUST’s VentureLab in 2012. For 3 months I continuously asked Yousef for business advice since he was more knowledgeable. It only made sense that he should join Mariam Hamidaddin and myself to make the great team that we are today.
When I first pitched the idea, the VentureLab team was not sold. However with each week, their belief in Onqoud grew. Onqoud continues to be one of the alumni referred to as a proof of VentureLab’s success.

What’s your biggest inspiration?

Y: Seeing passionate people. It doesn’t matter what it is that you are passionate about; if I see you being passionate about something I will feel inspired.

S: I hate to admit this but I’m an Instagram addict. I think the reason behind my addiction is the fact that I’m following so many inspiring people. Instagram continues to be one of the main keys to endless knowledge about healthy food, yoga and fitness.

What kind of mediums do you use in your work? What’s your favorite medium?

Y: I am very passionate about experimentation! I love all mediums equally, but if I had to choose, I would say it’s “new media,” which is the intersection of art and technology.

S: I would say my favorite medium depends on my mood, really. For instance, when I edit a photo on my phone, it’s usually a quick release for me and I get to share that form of expression on my Instagram.

Do you remember your first artwork?

Y: I started dabbling with art and making stuff in general a long time ago so it would be difficult to say what exactly was my “first” artwork. My first exhibited work was a piece called “Processed by Hierarchy” which I exhibited in Istanbul back in 2010 as part of Edge of Arabia’s TRANSISTION exhibition.

S: I can’t say I do, but it depends on what you consider an artwork. I do remember our 1st grade teacher asking us to draw the four seasons. She never made sure we wrote our names, so when she put them together in booklets for us to take she mixed up students’ drawings. Obviously I’m still upset about it because I still remember that the four drawings my mom saved are not all mine. I don’t even remember the teacher’s name, but I do remember this isolated incident. Thankfully I did get the snowman I drew and he’s survived for 20 years!

 

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