Playful Ceet Fouad has journeyed from graffiti to sought-after commercial artist
Whether on wall or canvas, graffiti artist's works have taken him around the globe, writes Richard Lord
Not many people, when asked to pose for photos with their work, will voluntarily mug for the camera quite as readily as French artist Fouad Ceet.
Surrounded by his wryly humorous, wittily titled paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works depicting his trademark stylised chickens - part of his ongoing exhibition, "No Wings, No Chocolate" at Toof Contemporary gallery in Ap Lei Chau - Ceet directs the photographer to snap him in a variety of goofy poses, jumping up and down and grinning cheerfully.
"It's typically my style to make something humorous," he says. "My work is abstract, colourful and graphic, something you can't explain, but I like to communicate with people in different ways. It's who I am, always making jokes with my friends, always playing - it represents me."
The show is an example of the way in which the 43-year-old, whose background is in graffiti art, has crossed over from the street to the gallery. Yet that was never his intention. Ceet started creating graffiti when he was 15 in his native Toulouse as a way of having fun with friends; his transition from wall to canvas was natural and incremental, prompted by others' appreciation of his work.
"When you're a kid, you try to find your own way. This was never supposed to be a job; it was just like a joke, a game with friends, because you never do this alone," he says. "We kept trying to take it another step: more graffiti, more colours, more organisation. And we found that people were interested in our work. First we were asked to do a shop doorway, and the owner gave us some money to pay for the paint. Then we were asked to paint a house. Eventually I was asked to paint on canvas."
From Toulouse he branched out to Paris and other French cities. A sponsorship deal with Adidas took him to Germany and further afield, and suddenly he found himself a spraycan-toting world traveller. "The graffiti community is very small: everyone knows each other. When you travel, you contact guys who are very active there, and you stay at his place, and then when he travels he stays at yours. It's like a family," he says.
One place his work took him was Shenzhen, when he was invited in 2001 to paint a shop - and he liked Hong Kong's neighbour so much he moved there. Virgin territory for a graffiti artist, Shenzhen also allowed him to expand his artistic palette. "I really liked China when I first went there. It was another world from Europe - there was no graffiti anywhere. Then, when I moved to China, I met artists who taught me how to paint with a brush."
Ceet's work has a crazily energetic, hyperkinetic style, a combination of intensely complex abstract tessellating patterns and lettering, with his use of perspective giving it a three-dimensional quality, highlighted by his rich, dense use of colour.
And then there're the chickens. His only foray into figurative work, the chickens were hatched when he first visited Shenzhen, was unable to speak a word of Putonghua and needed to communicate what he wanted to eat in a restaurant. He says he likes that the word "chicken" carries such different connotations in different countries: in France it's a national insignia, in South Africa it signifies fighting - and then, ahem, there's the Chinese meaning.
His chicken paintings, with their crushes of blank-faced birds forming patterns similar to those of his abstract work, are also his most explicitly political. "I wanted to show that humans are killing ourselves step by step. We have no space. The chicken is never alone in my work and, like the chickens, we are going straight to the same factory to be killed," he says.
After five years in Shenzhen, he moved to Hong Kong, mainly because of his young family. There's a greater appreciation of street art here, he says, but it can still be difficult. "Hong Kong is a bit like Switzerland, people want everything to be clean and straight, and so something is missing. But it's coming. People are just waiting for something new, something in the street, especially people who don't have much money."
As well as Adidas, Ceet has worked with brands including Prada, Hermès, Loewe, Ecko and Moiselle: they liked his work, meaning they gave him creative freedom. "It's very interesting for me - I can show my work in different ways, and new people can see it.
"I've done so many things through graffiti in my life. Without graffiti, I wouldn't get to travel like I have, and see so many things."
No Wings, No Chocolate, Toof Contemporary, Unit 311, 3/F Harbour Industrial Centre, 10 Lee Hing Street, Ap Lei Chau. Inquiries: 2580 0393. Until Sept 6