Ilham Alshahab’s interpretative art lets viewers decide how each story ends

TAKING inspiration from her own thoughts, experiences and sometimes dreams, Ilham Alshahab’s narrative art may appear ambiguous at first look.

But its recurring themes of absence, solitude and peace have served as touchpoints for viewers to contemplate.

The 23-year-old interdisciplinary artist said: “Creating pieces that asks people to pay attention has made me more receptive to the world around me. This world is vast, and I’m always picking up symbols and patterns out there and connecting them with my own experiences.

“I’ve learnt a lot about myself this way and it has helped me learn about how other people think too.”

As she translates her real life experiences and gives them new meaning through mysterious storytelling, suggestive of fictitious reality and the symbolic unknown, Ilham’s comic-like illustrations and animation can help frame alternative perspectives of the world.

“I am definitely who I am today because of works by Maria Medem, Max Ernst and Hergeì. Something about their work just speaks to me while being so quiet, like a silent nod you give someone when your eyes meet. I like how that feels,” she added.


Does your background in advertising influence the way you create art?

Advertising has opened my eyes to the world around me. I learnt how to understand what people want and what they need to hear. I think that helped me think outside myself when I tell these stories. I knew then how to reach out to people, how to make myself vulnerable in my work while also making it about something others would care about too.

Tell us more about the distinctive comic elements in your art.

I have always been in love with comics as a child and especially liked to pay extra attention to the panels that had no text. That’s how I want people to absorb my work as well, to pay attention, assess how the environment in each panel makes them feel, and guess what they think this story is about based on their own experiences.

It’s a constant balance between making sure that the story isn’t too predictable, while also ensuring that the message isn’t lost or too abstract.

How does your more recent new media art compare with your earlier work?

I’ve been having a lot of fun just experimenting with these new mediums really, and trying to find my place in it all. There’s so much potential in reaching out to people with more than just a story within five to six panels. It opens a lot of doors for me and challenges me as an artist. I find myself constantly having to rethink: “Which of the five senses must I engage with for this message to come across?”

Is it important for your work to raise questions?

Most definitely. Although these stories are often about my own thoughts and experiences, I want them to belong to you, as a viewer. It’s not about the stuff you see, but about the stuff that counts. There’s something beautiful about making up stories in your head. The viewer gets to figure out what the story is about or how it ends without me giving it to them, and that sense of euphoria is akin to solving a puzzle.

How would you define “originality” in the creative field?

Everything has been said or done before. I don’t believe there’s truly any way to be completely original. However, I believe it’s important to be authentic and true to one’s self in the creative field. We are all collectors and our individual voices are simply a combination of influences from others.

Figure out what you want to say, while using those influences to piece things together. There’s nothing wrong with being open to the voices all around you.

What matters most is what happens inside your head after you hear them.

Do you have to stay away from what others are doing in order to produce original work?

In the earlier stages, yes. When I have an abstract idea of what I want to talk about, I try to hold myself back from immediately looking up references or what others have said about it and just let the idea sit and brew.

When I have something more concrete, then I can begin to open up a little and let everything in.

What motivates you?

It helps me to take a step back and realign myself with what really matters. There’s a lot of noise out there.

I just have to make sure that I know my place in this world so I don’t get lost in it.