Sandro Botticelli’s Three Graces are gathered around a pole in an empty MRT carriage. Eugen Von Blaas’ two girls from The Mandolinist look contentedly as the satay man grills their order. Then there’s Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June all curled up, asleep in the back row of an SBS bus. Humorously insightful and beautifully rendered, these creations by Hafiiz Karim (aka The Next Most Famous Artist) juxtapose classical works with familiar everyday scenes to present Singapore in unexpected ways.

We speak to the man behind the Instagram account to find out more about his creative journey, thought process and what he has up his sleeves next. 

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Photo: Arissa Ha

Tell us more about @thenextmostfamousartist.

The Next Most Famous Artist was born as a reaction to the growing attention given to virality and popularity in the social media landscape. I wanted to create a persona that pokes fun at this drive for fame and success. I started my Instagram account in 2011 to post my artwork under my real name but I only changed it to my current moniker a couple of years ago.

What is your relationship with art?

To me, it’s as important as any bodily function. If you said “Hafiiz, no more art,” it’s like taking away my soul. To me, creating art is like removing the silts of your mind. And what I mean by that is, when you’re creating art everything around you goes grey and you’re only focused on creating it. So to me, it’s an important process that I do everything single day—and it doesn’t even have to be art, it can also be something creative. It’s a part of me. 

When did you first start juxtaposing classic artworks with images of everyday life? 

This style of mixing art history with contemporary elements is nothing new. But when I was taking my master’s degree, the thought of appropriating these classical figures into familiar situations that I’ve experienced so far in life, intrigued me. The figures from the past have their own stories and they are no different from us. So I wondered how they would interact in our current times.

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Tell us about your creative process.

Sometimes the modern setting inspires the narrative of the work that is based on my own experiences or things I wish I could have done. Then I search for the right poses from classical figures that best match the scene. Other times the poses and expressions of these figures inspire the work and I find the right situation to match that.

What inspires you to create?

When I create my artwork, I focus on making something that helps me to feel better, and removes me from my everyday experience. When we scroll through social media, it can be very dejecting to only see negative and painful content, especially now when we are constantly bombarded by negative news surrounding the pandemic. I wanted to bring some light-hearted humour to people’s feed through my work and I hope that when they see my work, it adds some joy, laughter and positive thoughts to their day before they carry on with their lives. That’s what art should do; it should make you feel different or have an emotional experience. It’s not just about creating for the sake of it or to satisfy my ego but about giving viewers something they can connect with through their memories and experiences, and invite them to add to the conversation.

But the series represents more than creating interesting and relatable art. It is the democratisation of creativity where the original works that used to hang on the grand and sacred walls of the gallery spaces for the elites are now breathing and taking on new life in the social media realm for the masses. Once that framework is established, I am able to explore different social issues like gender and sexual identity, consumerism, and national identity in a more accessible and cheeky way.

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How has the response to your artwork been?

So far it has been largely positive. People especially enjoy the fact that they can relate to the different scenarios in the artwork and how the contrast between the local settings and the characters from historical paintings makes mundane situations all the more interesting and humorous. Some viewers have also expressed their interest in finding out more about the historical art figures I chose for my work.

To be honest, the fact that people are interested in buying some prints from me is very flattering and it definitely helps with sustaining my drive to keep creating. Apart from that, I loved how my work takes a life on its own online. It doesn’t just become my work, but of the viewers as well. And I like that process.

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Tell us more about your Instagram account and its evolution

Through this Instagram account, The Next Most Famous Artist explores different artwork and mediums while spotlighting various social issues and highlighting the beauty of everyday life.

My account has evolved a lot from drawings, to watercolour, to mono-prints, to digital painting and now photo-manipulation. I guess life motivated me to experiment with different mediums. The people I meet, the artists I read up on, even my life experiences made me think differently on the art I’m making at the time. That’s the beauty of art. It’s not just about finding the unique style to make you stand out. It’s about the language of your life. It’s about the way we think and navigate life.

How do you think the pandemic has affected the art industry and its practitioners?

I think that the pandemic has really affected a lot of businesses in the art world because people are not going out as much as they used to. People are hesitant to go to art exhibitions and participate. I also think that we—art practitioners—are learning how to bring art to the people, like for example social media or by ensuring physical exhibitions comply with all of the safe-distancing protocols. 

My advice to any struggling artist is that you need to know the platform that you’re using—unless you’re making art for yourself as a form of therapy. But if you want to make it “out there”, then you have to understand the market and how to market your art and yourself so that people will be willing to accept the artwork that you do. However, do so without losing your sense of self, because you don’t want to fit into a mould of an already very saturated (and very good) contemporary art market.

What do you like to do in your free time?

As a proud introvert, homebody, and modern hermit, I just blast some ’90s music and create art whenever I have free time. Other than that, I enjoy my afternoon naps.

What are your plans for the future?

Since most of my artwork live on social media, I’m definitely planning on getting them offline and to the public, but not in a traditional manner like galleries. The goal of this is to make it an anti-establishment art concept. So for example, I’m thinking of making on-ground artworks with some quirky elements. Hopefully that would convert back into better online engagement.