Interview with Rohân Houssein

Rohân Houssein

Mixing painting, poetry, dance and music in his art, Rohân HOUSSEIN is a multi-faceted artist whose work is inspired by his travels, spirituality and love. This interview reveals this young artist, whose first works that enabled him to launch his clothing brand were made using Pébéo paint.

Can you tell us who you are and how you became an artist?

My name is Rohân, a geo-poetic artist. This term gets its inspiration from the traveller Ibn Jubayar who deemed travel as a source of inspiration for his writings.

Art has always been part of my life because I have been drawing since the age of three. As I grew and opened up to the world, other components naturally became part of my artistic identity.

At age 8, I found writing. Then, in my adolescence, I discovered Hip-Hop culture as a way of adopting versatility and breaking down the barriers to my creativity (drawing, rap, dance, etc.).

At the age of 16, whilst travelling through India, I made my first video documentary, which helped me become aware of the emotional power that this format has, and added this new string to my bow.

What is your background?

In high school, I created my customised clothing brand. It was with this desire to wear my own creations that I discovered the Pébéo Setacolor range pots of paint while rummaging through my mother's cupboards.

I applied the paint to a sponge and then stamped a stencil on a t-shirt. I loved the result and I realized that I now had a new medium of expression.

This project has been following me for 10 years and the brand's DNA was built out of travelling and meeting people.

After the baccalaureate, I studied medicine at the Timone faculty in Marseille. Once the first year was done, I was on track to become a doctor. I was always a good student and it was the combination of family pressure and a tribute to a sick friend at the time, which led me to make this choice.

In 2011, after this friend passed away when I was in 3rd year, I started to ask myself questions. I went to New York during the summer holidays, and for the first time I was able to get very positive feedback on all my artistic work, which until then was only listed in the "passions" box.

My dream was within touching distance: A shoot on the rooftops of Queens for my brand, making a video for one of my rap songs... And I felt completely in my right place.

On returning from NY, I received a phone call from a production company for a TV show on France 2 that was planning to send young people to comment on the chaotic news of 2011. My Syrian origins and my interest in the movement of the Arab Spring allowed me to be selected to go to carry out a report in Libya.

At the end of August, I flew to Tripoli alongside the famous war reporter Grégoire Deniau, to endure the bullets of snipers in the chaos of a Libya that was in the midst of conflict.

The adventure only lasted one week but every day was a lesson in survival. Upon my return, after several months of clerkship in the fourth year of medicine, I decided to interrupt my studies and fully devote myself to a useful, saving context of Art, in an everlasting quest for truth, peace and beauty. 

What is your world?

Some logos of my brand are present in my works like Hibiscus flowers, the Taj Mahal, or a stylized yellow butterfly: the symbol of emancipation and freedom.

War, peace, universal love, feminine beauty, identity and geo-poetry are my main themes. I am fascinated by the curves, fluidity of movement, turquoise colours like the sea, gold and sand of the desert, violets like nebulae and galaxies.

Spirituality also has an overriding place in my art. I often draw dervish turners (Sufi mystical dancers with long white robes) to accurately study the notion of curves and rotation.

Arabic calligraphy is also often present, akin to a woman's hair "a divine ray of light" as the poet, Rûmi, would say.. 

What place does painting have in your art?

We are eternally marked by a first love. It is the same with painting and drawing. Everything I do is understood like painting.

When I write a song or make a video, I begin the same creative, colourful, dynamic process that is, in essence, free. "Everything is curved, everything is drawn, everything is a matter of accomplishing design by following destiny."

However, when inspiring music plays in my apartment and my body compels me to move a brush, there is very often a canvas around the place to be able to become one with the paint. I am also commissioned to create murals for individuals.

What were and are your influences?

  • The Orientalism of Jean-Léon Gérôme, Étienne Dinet or Delacroix.
  • The Surrealism of Dali, or Frida Kahlo who, when I visited her exhibition at the Musée de l'Orangerie in 2013, granted me the right to free my pain through art. Thanks to her and her relationship with suffering, I was able to give more strength to certain paintings, notably those made in homage to Syria.
  • Pop-Art by Basquiat, Warhol and Keith Haring.
  • In the same vein, Middle Eastern literature influences my paintings, such as some writings of the poets Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Khalil Gibran

Which Pébéo products are you particularly fond of?

Symbolically, I am very fond of Pébéo Setacolor, whose little pots have accompanied the progress of my clothing brand since 2006. –Studio Acrylics,4artist marker.

Discovering the Mixed Media range lead to an extraordinary scope of possibilities, enabling me to discover new emotions!

Can you tell us an artistic anecdote?

A sunny May morning. My fingers covered in paint in my studio, voices of passers-by enter through the half-open window.

In preparation for my day, I categorise my stencils and refill the little Pébéo pots. A message from my best friend, Husni, reminds me that the singer, Ayo is appearing at the Fnac downtown at around 1pm.

Excited by this news, I am already thinking about offering her a creation. I hurriedly go to the nearest clothing store to buy a white tank top.

I go home, the timing is good, and I see Ashley, an American friend, at the door of the building, she has come to retrieve an order. In my rush, I ask if she would like to accompany me to this music event. She agrees and we go home to make the tank top for Ayo.

Ashley observantly beholds the work, tracing the hibiscus petals with a brush, carefully manipulating the colours to reconstruct an assortment of refined patterns. Finally, I write the name "Billie-Eve" in italics, with a light pink pen tip. This is the name of her last album, but also her daughter's name, calling her Billie, after the name of her first guitar and Eve after the first woman, which together forms the sound "Believe".

Arrival in the Fnac show-case space: Elegance. Tact. Beauty.

Subtle, dissociated words run through my mind when this slender woman with a shapely Afro appears. She takes her guitar, and with a gentle voice greets the audience. Her melody takes me into the clouds. My right eye is full of tears and I forget the hassle of everyday life.

The small concert ends, the organisers set a table for autographs. I get up from my chair and find myself face to face with Ayo, who ends up drinking a sip of water.

She gives me a smile and says, "Are you okay?" checking out the butterfly drawn on my T-shirt. I walk up to the table, and answer her with a child-like smile. "Yes, fine, thank you, Ayo. Thank you for all these emotions". I explain to her that I make designs on clothes, and she congratulates me for what I'm wearing and I tell her that I made a small gift to honour her passing through Marseille. I pull the tank top out of my bag and hand it to her.

Her face lights up and she expresses her gratitude when she sees the colours, and her daughter's name that she caresses gently, telling me "It's so beautiful..."

Smiles are exchanged, and she thanks me again, before putting on the garment so that I can immortalise the moment in a photo with this unique work.

It ends in goodbye, still with a smile. I leave the room with Ashley, soaked in emotion by the intensity of this human exchange. 

Do you have an art project that is important to you?

  • Making a video clip for a song from my album that will be released at the end of the year. It's about a song in which I mention Pébéo, which I would like to shoot in the Caribbean, featuring an event on the beach with people painting a huge mural using the brand's products.
  • Making a big mural in each new country I visit, immortalising the process in a video.

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