Khaled Al Najdi : The artist behind the many faces of Social Anxiety
Written by: Ashley Alleluya
Photography by: Salman Moghaddam
Artwork by: Khaled Al Najdi
There’s an overused Khalil Ghibran quote all the cool kids insist is worth sharing on social networks these days, often plastered in cursive fonts against an overexposed image of a sunset or a morose looking tree; “between what’s said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.” Oddly enough, this is the saying my mind throws at me during my sit-down with Khaled Al-Najdi. I find that I take constant mental breaks to assess his replies. His silences. His love for his work. For the next couple of hours, Khaled’s words – both verbal and non-verbal – give him the air of a man living a reality that he processes through his work in an array of colors and disorders.
I could be projecting what I expect from an artist whose latest work is a startlingly vibrant study on social anxiety. I could be feeding off the few candid moments in which he confesses his fascination with psychology and that he could not imagine his first exhibition as a collaboration because his work is intensely personal. Or I could be building my impression of Khaled from the way he sits across from me, his dazzling smile and polite yet reserved demeanor that almost distracts from whatever question I have waiting for him. I walk into this interview knowing that Khaled’s latest work, which is being lauded around the Kuwaiti art scene weeks after its first appearance, finds it’s root in an anxiety that he sees almost viscerally in the world around him. It piques my interest, this curiously deep understanding of the human psyche that he has, which translates into sharp works on canvas that can intrigue and unsettle at once.
Khaled traces his artistic journey back to his childhood. “I believe I was always interested in art, and I would enjoy these classes. I think my first piece was a portrait, an 80 by 60 [centimeter canvas], and it has been my style since then. In fact, I didn’t even know I had a talent for it, although other people often told me I was good. I was just happy to be by myself, a loner in my teenage years,” he says. I can still see the reluctance, the shyness all these years later – the introvert in him is strong. “It may sound cliché, but I tend to draw and paint on canvas when I am feeling something strongly, usually something negative that needs to come out,” he tells me about his sources of inspiration. It is after a few minutes of this initial exchange that I begin to grasp Khaled’s language of choice – measured responses and words, punctuated by the use of his hands, his shoulders and the tilt of his neck.
This introversion works almost like a superpower for Khaled, given his ability to observe and study the people in his surroundings, transmitting the inner workings of their personality into his ‘Social Anxiety’ series. “It was the first exhibition I had held and to have it at Artspace was a huge deal. And I remember being so anxious, because I’m often used to people being there (he gestures into the void) while I am here,” he recalls. “I had a clear vision of how I wanted it to look, a glass room that represented me with all the other work around the room, representing the way I saw other people. All the work that was displayed was a personal interaction with someone in my life, friend, family or stranger, a series that has taken almost three years to complete. But it worked successfully and everyone had their own interpretations of my work, which I liked.”
When I ask him about the thought process behind this series, he reiterates the importance of personal connections with people. “I believe and have observed that every person possesses a certain degree of a disorder of some kind, and this is why each piece, including the self-portrait I worked on, is an effort to reflect what I perceive in a particular person.” I debate whether to ask him to elaborate since this is a creative process that seems more spontaneous and inexplicable than most, yet just when I am about to shift the conversation, he lowers his shackles and gives me an anecdote. “There is a portrait I created in this series after an intense argument with a person I had worked with at some point. And it shocked me to see this person visit my exhibition, stop in front of this portrait, and identify so strongly with it that they bought it to hang in their bedroom. Which is funny because my manifestation of their personality was a strong one, and not something they might want to wake up to,” he laughs.
Khaled, I discover, is strangely at his most comfortable when the talk shifts to his interests outside of his work – strange because I have often had to interrupt artists and their passionate monologues about their work and the creative journey. He is currently finding an exciting new medium of expression through charcoal, after extensive work with acrylic on canvas. He is a Virgo with a penchant for people-watching and social commentary, though he reserves this for his small yet tight-knit group of friends. Travel motivates him, food excites him. Thailand, Philippines, Japan, Italy and Sri Lanka are among places he counts as his favorites. Big cities do not appeal to him much – it is the quiet and openness of the beach that speaks more to his spirit – and yet New York is the place he’d want to be if he weren’t in Kuwait, working on his art. “It is different there from other cities, a place where people openly express their art and it motivates me,” he confides.
He’s also fond of the fantasy genre, with Game of Thrones (of course) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy counting among his most prized viewing experiences. As a fan of worlds and tales that transport you far from the mundane while forcing your imagination to be as vivid as possible, the appeal of fantasy to an artist who expresses himself strongly through his almost surreal work seems like a perfect fit. It also seems to fit his role as a connoisseur of emulation through observation rather than participation that Khaled is a person who feels he is better suited to tasting food, and not cooking it, though he loves food and can discourse at length about the varied natures of spices. The overarching narrative with this quietly mad genius seated across from me constantly veers towards comfort in a friendly detachment over the vulnerability of reality.
Khaled winds up his time with me by letting me in on the utopian eventuality he envisions for himself – “a space that is my own studio, where I also live and have small exhibitions, much like an artist I observed in New York. The exhibition at Artspace really helped me overcome a large part of my initial social anxiety, and I sense a growing confidence when I think of displaying my work now,” he confides. “No marketing my work, or procession of any kind, just me letting my portraits speak to those who seek it.” I can picture him living this life; the expressionist whose works is his voice, whose connection with his surroundings is made through his intimate understanding of people and who finds a curious comfort watching others shed their masks as they lose and then find themselves in his work – all done with a smile.