In the world of art and design, collectibles have emerged as fascinating expressions of creativity and cultural identity. Among the talented designers in this realm, Kuwaiti Ahmed Al-Refaie and Bahraini Abdulla BinHindi Al-Mannai stand out as remarkable creatives who have embarked on unique journeys to create their iconic toy collectibles. Their passion for this art form has not only captured the imaginations of many but also fostered a stronger bond with Arab Gulf culture.
Ahmed's fascination with collectibles began as a collector himself, appreciating these art pieces for their ability to beautify spaces and evoke emotions. However, as his artistic aspirations grew, he found himself drawn to the idea of creating collectibles that represented the rich heritage and traditions of Arab cultures.
Meanwhile, Abdulla's background in architecture provided the foundation for his creative endeavors. While practicing as an architect and running Shepherd Studio as a partner, he found himself captivated by collectibles tied to pop culture, and this fascination led him to experiment with 3D software to give life to his envisioned characters. “During my university years, I began experimenting with 3D software to create a few characters I had envisioned. Over the recent years, I decided to extend this exploration, transforming these digital creations into tangible entities,” said Abdulla.
Beyond their full-time endeavors, Ahmed and Abdulla share a profound mission – to cultivate a stronger bond with Arab Gulf culture through their collectibles. “As kids, we’d watch cartoons and it was the driving force to acquire characters that are based on what we enjoy. Similarly, the more interest created around culture and traditions, the more artists are encouraged to explore these topics,” said Ahmed.
While one designer seeks to represent Arab cultures in modern light, the other aims to offer children’s toys that reflect their own culture and identity, shifting from non-regional characters prevalent in the market. “Considering the fact that the Gulf region is predominantly a consumer market, especially in terms of toys and daily essentials, the local children grow up surrounded by non-regional characters. My creations offer a shift, presenting children with relatable toys that visually and interactively echo our own culture. They are more than just playful objects; they are cultural artifacts embodying nuances of our everyday lives and the uniqueness of our regional identity,” expressed Abdulla.
The dedication and mastery of their 3D skills enable Ahmed and Abdulla to create collectibles that transcend traditional art forms, mesmerizing individuals with their imaginative designs and culturally-inspired narratives.
For Ahmed, the journey of crafting "Retired Arab" was a transformative one, especially considering he had no prior experience in the field. Determined to capture the essence of culture while ensuring top-notch production, Ahmed turned to self-learning. “I began my process and completed the entire thing on iPad. I sketched out ideas, then started 3D sculpting on YouTube after many trials and errors,” said Ahmed.
Abdullah had the same approach. After translating these ideas onto paper as initial sketches, forming a strong conceptual foundation, Abdulla then sculpts his characters, meticulously refining their designs and preparing them for production using his 3D skills, including the potential for mass manufacturing.
Ahmed and Abdulla have received heartwarming feedback from individuals of all ages. Ahmed's dedication to crafting his collectible with precision and creativity has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. People were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the product, and the thoughtful packaging, including delightful stickers which added to the excitement surrounding this locally designed masterpiece. “It is amazing and humbling to see the excitement of a locally designed product and I hope more people are encouraged to pursue it,” said Ahmed.
Similarly, Abdulla's imaginative characters have left a lasting impact on collectors, particularly on young children. Although not originally targeting them as the primary audience, Abdulla has been deeply touched by the joy parents share when their kids unbox his toys, sometimes forming cherished bonds with them, even becoming favorite bedtime companions. “As a parent, witnessing these shared moments is profoundly rewarding. Though children were not my initial target demographic, their engagement with my creations underscores the universal appeal of these characters,” expressed Abdulla.
Both designers incorporate storytelling into their designs to captivate the imaginations of individuals. “Throughout my artistic career, storytelling is a top tier requirement as it gives purpose to a given artwork beyond the creation itself,” said Ahmed. While specializing in still art, he uses color, art styles, and subjects to convey specific emotions. In the case of his collectible, "Retired Arab," the character's posture and attire evoke relatable experiences for those with retired fathers, sparking emotions and connections with the audience.
However, Abdulla prefers opening things up for interpretation, saying, “I appreciate the power of ambiguity and the creative space it provides for personal interpretation. By not defining every aspect of the toy's story, I invite collectors to become co-creators, weaving their own narratives and forming unique emotional bonds with the characters.”
Words by Marsya A. Abdulghani
Images courtesy of Ahmed Al-Refaie and Abdulla BinHindi Almannai