Credits: [Photo/Animation: Issue 3 cover art by Hamza]
Breathing life into static imagery, interdisciplinary artist Hamza Mekdad creates engaging 2D illustrations and animations by combining minimalism with strategic coloring, kinetic typography, line art, symbolism, and sound. Communicating concise messages through visual storytelling, he touches on personal and universal themes associated with the mental, social, political, and historical subject matter. Mekdad’s creative power lies in his ability to deconstruct complex notions into simple, relatable artwork.
Growing up in the suburbs of Beirut, Hamza attended the Lebanese American University (LAU) to study architecture, something he had been interested in since childhood. Realizing that he was more interested in the arts rather than technical engineering, he considered transferring to graphic design. Since he was already experienced and well-rounded in the field, Hamza finally settled on communication and media studies and graduated in 2014 with a double major in theatre and film.
Following his graduation, Mekdad worked in theatre in roles including set designer, stage manager, and technical director. In 2017, he ventured into film as an on-screen actor for the first time starring in the hauntingly poetic Lebanese film Martyr. Set between Beirut’s Corniche and Khanda Al Ghamee, the movie is a portrait of Hassane, played by Mekdad, who set out to the beach with his friends to blow off steam after losing his job. While diving off the Corniche’s seaside promenade, he tragically drowns, leaving his friends with the responsibility to carry his lifeless body from the water to his parents’ house.
Credits: Martyr Trailer
Raw, sensual, and subtly homoerotic, the masterfully choreographed film is a performative tableaux vivant (living picture) that carefully studies mourning, the fragility of male intimacy in the Arab world, and the sacred Islamic rituals taken when one transcends. Hamza’s performance was hypnotizing. Whether floating still in the meditative underwater scenes or through the soul-stirring dance number, the sensual theatrics prevail with a peculiar and reflective perspective on desire, the body, and the human connection. In preparation for the role, Mekdad spent a year going through introspective work, character building, and trust-building exercises alongside director Mazen Khaled and his co-stars to master the eerily familiar and emotionally stimulating sequences. “I was either acting like someone who was suicidal, or I was acting like a corpse. I felt empty for three months, and it changed me a lot, I think.”
When asked if he would act again, Hamza responded with, “I think with the right script, I would act again. I never thought I would go into a commitment this big until I read the script. It was amazing. And I never had so much respect for acting before that, honestly.”
Martyr premiered at the 74th Venice International Film Festival in 2017 and is the first Lebanese film to get funded by the Venice Biennale College Cinema Program, recounted Hamza. A self-censored version of the movie was screened in Lebanon and Egypt to avoid any chances of it getting banned or cut.
In the same year that Mekdad shot the movie, he worked at Bardo, the oldest gay bar in Beirut. Starting as the DJ, he quickly took on the community manager position and became the lead designer for their visual content. He also planned different events and collaborations with clubs like Discotek. Gaining experience in scenography, costume design, lighting design, photography, editing, and motion graphics, among other creative expressions, Hamza has had the opportunity to work in many roles in performing arts and design.
Generating emotionally engaging and concept-driven work, Mekdad approaches his creations playfully and humorously. With admiration for everything old such as the drawings found on tarot decks and playing cards, his interest in animating simple renderings and bringing them back to life allows him to add a modern twist to traditional narratives. A striking example of this can be found in his card collection captioned “The Disturbed King of Hearts”. Mekdad’s looping video tells the reimagined tale of Charlemagne, King of France (768-814) and the first Holy Roman Emperor. Legend has it that after the passing of his two sons, Charlemagne’s mental health was in decline, which eventually led him to take his own life. After the announcement of his death, card manufacturers altered the image of the King of Hearts to tell the tale of a troubled emperor.
Whether through acting or design, Mekdad’s bodies of work simultaneously give his viewers an insight into historical or everyday events while raising awareness of mental illness and other social and political issues. Conveying his frustration with the Lebanese government, Hamza’s series “Beirut Interrupted” is a triptych (a piece of art comprised of 3 sections) that highlights some of Lebanon’s political complexities. Using flat organic shapes, vibrant contrasting colors, and textured gradients, Mekdad’s minimal illustrations tell the abstracted reality of his fractured society.
Published on December 30, 2018, Hamza’s first explicitly political animation illustrated the Lebanese parliament. Reading “New Year, Same Shit”, it talks about the recurring issues that Lebanon has been going through for over three decades. Another one of his not-so-subtle politically charged work is entitled “Ramco are not recycling”. Using kinetic typography, Mekdad boldly calls out the politically-affiliated company for its failure to manage the waste crisis that has been affecting Lebanon since 2015.
As a social activist, Hamza has been speaking up against the corrupted government for many years. Following the October 17 protests that erupted in 2019, he was one of the first people to storm the streets advocating for a better future. What stood out for Mekdad was the social awareness and a mutual understanding that he had never witnessed before. He said, “it was the first time when you went down to the protest, looked into someone’s eyes no matter what they looked like, what social class you would assume that they pertain to, or what religion they followed and when you did that, there was this mutual understanding that you are both there for the same reason. This broke a lot of walls!”
Inspired by the revolution, Hamza began to create more social and political pieces that carry impactful and symbolic messages. Approaching published content with caution, he developed a minimalist visual style that allows the viewer to focus on the message rather than the image itself.
Mekdad was also one of the many individuals affected by the explosion that shook Beirut on August 4, 2020. As a tribute to all the lives lost during this tragic incident, he put together a symbolic animation called “Names forever written in the skies of Beirut”. To help raise funds for those impacted by the explosion, Hamza sold his “Beirut, Interrupted” posters through Basecamp. 100% of the proceeds went to families in need.
Mekdad currently works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s Refugee Agency in Lebanon. As the creative lead in a humanitarian agency, he is required to follow design briefs. To ensure his optimal creativity, Hamza is always working on personal projects on the side to keep advancing himself artistically.
Malleable and introspective, Mekdad’s art stems from what matters to him the most. “I value my vision the most because this is all of my life. And I made a promise to myself a few years back that I would try to do anything to make the visually impaired experience art as best as they could.” With a strong desire to create illustrative work that is accessible to such individuals, Hamza’s transhumanist ideals continually drive him to expand his artistic expression. Not sticking to any consistent style, he uses digital tools to combine minimalism with imperative color values and clean illustrations to deliver complex information through visual storytelling.
Mekdad’s interests are vast and include traditional artistry such as Islamic art as well as costume and fashion design. Authentically an old soul, his contemporary beliefs and creative mind certainly make him an artist to keep an eye on.
Cynthia Ghoussoub is a Lebanese photographer and storyteller based in Sierra Leone. Having graduated in 2015 with BA in Photography from Notre Dame Louaize (NDU), she has worked in several creative industries. Using photography and writing to uncover a deeper understanding of the human psyche, Ghoussoub’s practice touches on themes related to the self, memory, and social identity. The former manager of Beirut Center of Photography (BCP) participated in season 2 of I am Natgeo Photographer, a four-part mini tv series that aired between March and April 2018 on National Geographic Abu Dhabi. Cynthia continues to explore the nuances of cross-cultural communication in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Her photographs have been exhibited in both solo and group shows in Lebanon.