By Nathaniel Goehring
Kanye West, Adrian Grenier, and business luminaries including real estate mogul David Perry are all collectors of Saudi Arabian artist Abdullah Qandeel’s work. He has also attracted the most powerful clientele in the Middle East, from billionaire Saudi princes and Malaysian entrepreneurs to restaurant and retail tycoons.
“I’ve always felt everything was possible, and I still do,” says Qandeel, who has held successful shows in Monte Carlo, his hometown of Jeddah, and New York City, where the Saudi ambassador to the UN requested Qandeel’s work for an exhibit at the Waldorf Astoria. In April 2013 Qandeel’s painting, The Failure, sold for a record-breaking $57,000 at Sotheby’s contemporary auction in Qatar, and most recently, The Enemy Within, a bold, neo-expressionist self-portrait, sold for $209,000 by the famed auction house.
These auctions, hosted by an eminently western corporation, are symptomatic of a broader cultural movement in the Middle East. Qandeel, 26, explains that 70% of Saudi Arabia’s population is now between the ages 15 to 35, and that this sector is inundated with western culture from sources such as the television network OSN, which broadcasts the likes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians into Saudi homes. He emphasizes the purchasing power of young people and rising investment into art as a new class asset as some reasons for his success. In the context of a recent construction boom, Qandeel, western-educated since age 10, is exceptionally well-suited to supply the demand from this burgeoning demographic. Like a shrewd businessman he recognizes that, “The market is untapped. Young people in Saudi Arabia want modern art for their modern homes for their modern lives.”
After studying at prestigious schools in the UK, including the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Qandeel attended the University of Kansas before moving to New York City in 2010. Qandeel arrived to what he considers “the capital of the US” with little money and no fame while Jacob Arabo, jeweler to pop royalty like Jay Z, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga, mentored him. “Jacob the Jeweler” would wake Qandeel up in the morning with phone calls urging him not to waste his day, saying, “Money never sleeps.” He also became Qandeel’s first American client.
Last Halloween, the young visionary learned that there are limits to the realm of possibility, earning bad boy cachet and a night in jail for painting a mural on the walls of the swanky penthouse suite at the 6 Columbus Hotel. Qandeel is currently painting a new series, planning a show in London, and working on a development project boasting at least eight buildings, featuring a high-end gallery of foreign and local artists, complete with an organic supermarket and a production studio for photography and music. “I can definitely see myself getting more involved with real estate,” he says. “I want to build a tower where every apartment is unique.” For now, though, Qandeel will settle for his most recent commission from the owner of the world’s tallest penthouse apartment at 432 Park Avenue. Money never sleeps, indeed.