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JEDDAH: Joel Alessandra, the renowned French comic artist, recently traveled through Saudi Arabia to showcase the country’s rich culture and heritage.

Alessandra’s visit was made possible by the French Embassy and the Alliance Francaise Saudi Arabia, as he is known for his innovative use of coffee and watercolors in his drawings.

After visiting Riyadh, Alkhobar and Al-Ula, Alessandra was captivated by the charm of Al-Balad, the old town of Jeddah.

“This part of the city of Jeddah inspired me the most. We feel the atmosphere of a time when pilgrims stopped here, we sense this fervent activity, there is an atmosphere of a centuries-old tradition that is still palpable,” Alessandra told Arab News.

The ancient architecture was a rich source of inspiration for his sketches, including the patina-covered walls and intricate doorways. Alessandra’s drawings during his time in Jeddah aimed to capture the essence of Al-Balad’s vibrant past and present.

He also held a live performance in Jeddah, re-enacting scenes from Al-Balad and giving viewers an insight into his artistic process.

“The theme was an impromptu walk in Al-Balad, based on my sketches from the afternoon, which I reproduced on the screen with watercolors. Scenes of life on the street, buildings from past centuries, minarets of mosques from the neighborhoods you walk through,” he said.

For Alessandra, travelling is a constant source of inspiration. Based on his experiences in Africa, he said: “It is the atmosphere and the people of a country that shape the way I draw. I get my true inspiration from where I am.”

Reflecting on his recent visit to the Kingdom, Alessandra said he was amazed by Saudi Arabia’s emerging cultural scene and the youth’s enthusiasm for artistic expression.

While Alessandra’s sketches express a deep appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage, he shies away from conveying explicit messages.

“I just want to convey the emotions that one feels when faced with all this incredible and immensely rich cultural, architectural and historical heritage. I am fortunate to be able to draw and show these emotions in my sketchbooks and books… I hope my readers will also be receptive to them,” he said.

He said AlUla left him in awe.

“It will be difficult for me to forget the fascination that AlUla exerted on me. The Nabatean tombs, just imagining how vibrant life was there in those ancient times, in the middle of the desert, is simply incredible.

“Moreover, it is inconceivable that the Roman Empire pushed its armies so far back from Italy.

“But also the old town with its shady and covered streets. It is a paradise for inspiring designers,” he said.

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Last year, he ventured out onto the streets of AlUla with students from the local art school to sketch.

“This moment is etched in my memory because these students were attentive and wanted to shape their environment and learn how to draw it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a desire among young people in other countries.”

His use of coffee as a medium adds depth and richness to his artwork, capturing the nuances of skin tones and desert landscapes.

During his stay in Jeddah, he led workshops on the subject of Francophonie and brought together students from different schools to jointly produce a fictional work in the form of texts and drawings.

Alessandra involved French students in a collaborative picture book project, exploring the fictional journey of the Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta in what is now Arabia. Through writing and drawing, the students recreated Ibn Battuta’s adventures, mixing elements of history and fantasy.

“The search for a key that opens the gate of time and allows Ibn Battuta to return to his century – it was very amusing to see how the young people translated this graphically,” said Alessandra.

Regarding his development as an artist, Alessandra said that constant practice is the key to success, adding to aspiring artists: “Draw, draw and draw some more.”

“Always have a sketchbook in your pocket and exercise your hand and your mind at every opportunity. Take advantage of every free moment while waiting for the bus, in the cafe or during commercial breaks on TV to scribble in this notebook. There are no problems, just a few lines to practice,” added Alessandra.

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