A cup of coffee can start a lot of people’s mornings, but very few can say it’s what started their line of work. A friend of esteemed Palestinian artist Janan Shihadeh, frantic over some spilt coffee on her white Balenciaga bag, sought the artist’s help. Shihadeh painted a beautiful geisha over the stain, and thus her own special brand of art was born. She has since achieved global fame for her unique brand of bespoke painting, applying her art to high-end designer pieces, bestowing them with new life and turning them into exclusive and unique works of art. eniGma’s Tanya Jaff spoke with Shihadeh to learn all about her artistic journey, how she found her way to global success, and what the future holds for her unique creative style.
Growing up in the United States, Saudi Arabia and London, Shihadeh carried her passion for art everywhere she went. Many years ago, she began expressing her love for decorative painting by creating murals and painting on buildings in Washington D.C. “I then moved to Cairo, Egypt and started working on furniture, houses and bespoke paintings,” Shihadeh recounts. Egypt was a great place artistically for her as it gave her the technical knowledge that helped build her artistic style. This included creating her own paints and glazes, at a time when paint shops were limited, giving a distinct quality to her art. “I got a really good feel for paint and surfaces, and this was because, at the time, Cairo was such a virgin place for painters. I think it did me good, it also gave me the platform to expand into so many branches and surfaces,” says Shihadeh.
Once Shihadeh moved to Dubai following the 2011 revolution, she began to work mainly on bespoke pieces, especially her bags. “When I got to Dubai, a friend asked me to paint her Birkin, and after that the clients started trickling in,” Shihadeh recalls. Multiple opportunities followed, including a collaboration with a vintage store in London for a popup art collection of trendy and vintage bags. Her customised bags caught the eye of Harvey Nichols, the luxury fashion department in London, and they bought all the bags from the collection. Shihadeh’s bags gained huge popularity and the customised concept began to grow rapidly.
Strongly believing that having talent is not enough to succeed, Shihadeh has been working hard on progressing artistically, ever since she was a young girl. “I think talent is only 10 percent of the story. I see it with my children, for example, who are very artistic. Because they would stay with me in the studio every day, they embraced art and became really good at it with practice,” says Shihadeh. “I didn’t allow them to watch TV and I never bought them a play station, because I was worried this would take away from their passions and creative hobbies,” she adds. Creativity is clearly a driving fuel for Shihadeh and her kids. She is convinced that people of all ages should have a passion that drives them and that without it, people feel a sense of emptiness.
Shihadeh is lucky enough to have a studio within her house, which gives her the ability to balance her time between her career and her family. “My kids would come home from school, sit with me in my beautiful studio which has a dreamy skylight, soothing music and every conceivable artistic material imaginable, colours, fabrics, glitter, patterns!” she fondly recounts. “They were surrounded by a strong artistic environment that they would appreciate for years to come,” she adds.
Although her schedule can sometimes be really hectic, Shihadeh’s positive outlook and her thirty years of artistic experience alleviate the pressure. “I have a three month wait list for my bespoke paintings, and once I start a bag, it can take me up to a week. Demand for my bags is booming and it’s a wonderful feeling. Metaphorically, it truly has been a steady uphill stream,” Shihadeh asserts. As for her daily schedule, a normal day for Shihadeh always starts with a workout, which she feels is a necessary part of her morning regimen. With her children studying abroad in university, she now has more time to spend on friends and other activities, while always prioritising around four to six hours a day of painting.
While she lives and works in Dubai, Shihadeh’s clientele is truly global. “I have been cited by a French study as being among the top customisers worldwide, based on who I have painted for and on my following,” she exclaims. She has indeed painted for multiple celebrity clients, including Mo Salah, Queen Rania, Vanessa Williams and more. “People spend money on investments from high end brands and want to have the ability to add their own touch to them,” she explains. “I’m recycling other people’s bags. Sometimes I clean them up, without even painting on them. I have created a business from this,” Shihadeh adds.
A few years ago, Shihadeh also had the incredibly exciting experience of painting on a Mercedes for the ‘She’s Mercedes’ campaign, proving she truly can paint on any type of surface. “It was a big deal. I had a lot of fun driving around in the car, seeing the influence the campaign had on empowering women through my artistic form,” she recalls. Another pivotal moment for Shihadeh was when she became the official painter for Louis Vuitton in the UAE five years ago, which helped her gain even more access to global contacts who were inspired by her work with their bags.
Shihadeh acknowledges that in today’s climate, social media has strongly impacted her brand and is the main gateway to how she speaks to her clients. “Social media is everything. I have clients all over the world who are able to reach me through this platform,” she says, explaining the tremendous impact this medium has had on her work.
Looking ahead, the future holds new exciting experiences for Shihadeh, who does not shy away from embarking on unexpected new projects. “I was asked by a large company, Maktabi, to paint on a carpet for the Art Dubai fair. I have painted on most surfaces, but this is the first time for me to paint on a carpet; and I am very excited to try something new,” she says, with a glimmer in her eye. She also has an event in Riyadh planned soon, as well as one in Dubai for Fashion Forward.
“I love what I do, and I work really hard. I am passionately, not commercially, driven,” insists Shihadeh. As a passionate painter who has achieved so much success, she has some advice to impart to young artists. She urges them to work hard and not to get attached to a style, “that keeps you comfortable. Being attached to your style means you’re not willing to experiment. As an artist, you should let go of your ego. There should be no ego in art, or else you won’t learn.”
Follow @Jananstudio on Instagram to see all Shihadeh’s incredible pieces and to keep up to date with any news and events coming ahead for the talented artist.