If you type “Naji Al-Ali” into the Google search bar, a black-and-white photo of a famed Palestinian cartoonist is the top result. He was born in 1937 and was murdered over 30 years ago on the streets of London.
By contrast, Naji Al-Ali (@najiarts), 22, is also an artist from Palestine. But he currently resides in Charlotte and is very much alive. He may have been named after an artistic icon, but he is fulfilling his own destiny.
Living a Legacy
When his parents met, Al-Ali’s mom told his dad he should name his son Naji after the Palestinian cartoonist. “I was born into it — and I wanted to live up to the potential that the name could take me.”
His parents aren’t artists, but they fostered his abilities. Al-Ali was raised in Qatar, learned from street artists in Egypt in the summers, and he spent a gap year in Jordan honing his craft.
Al-Ali moved to Charlotte in late 2017 with the intention of earning an associate’s degree and returning to Qatar. He has a few semesters left at CPCC, but Al-Ali now hopes to stay and build a life here.
“There’s just something about Charlotte and its community that really reminds me of home,” he said.
Finding His Tribe
Much of Al-Ali’s inspiration comes from exploration, so living in lockdown during a global pandemic was tough. He said he started to experience social anxiety.
One day when he was feeling especially homesick, Al-Ali saw a picture on Instagram of some of his friends working on the Black Lives Matter mural. Al-Ali asked if they needed a hand.
“After that project, each time I worked in these groups it helped me come out of my shell,” he said. “They’re guiding me and mentoring me to really see the potential in my work.”
He rejoined many of his friends earlier this year when 52 artists of color and street artists took over three galleries in the Mint Museum Randolph during the LOCAL/STREET pop-up installation.
Creating an Escape
One of Al-Ali’s earlier projects has taken on a life of its own. “Lemonback” started as a clothing brand — literally putting yellow designs on the back. Years later, it’s morphed into abstract designs and characters based on his environment.
“It’s a way for me to touch on current events and social issues without portraying it directly through my artwork,” he said. “I want to create an escape for people who need a second home to feel more comfortable. When this world isn’t good enough, I create my own.”
Al-Ali’s use of Arabic writing tends to generate the most response. “They don’t fully understand it until I translate it. After the translation, it’s like they’re experiencing the painting twice.”
Amidst the daily chaos, Al-Ali finds ways to stay grounded. One way is built into his daily routine. “I can’t go without my morning tea,” he said. “That 10 minutes of making it and sitting down to drink it — it’s the most peaceful part of my day.”
Al-Ali is looking forward to his trip back home in May to visit friends and family. “I’m going to reset and ground myself, then come back in August stronger and ready to take my art to the next level.”
A Bigger Picture of Naji Al-Ali
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