Reem R., by Océane Sailly

In the tradition of still life painting, Reem R. emerges as a contemporary artist who breathes new life into this enduring genre. Rooted in ancient Greece and reaching its zenith during the Renaissance, still life paintings depicted meticulously inanimate objects -such as  fruits, flowers, and household items- that demonstrated the technical prowess of the artist while imbuing them with symbolic, religious, and allegorical meanings. Vanitas images, in particular, served as poignant reminders of human mortality.

In keeping with the historical intention that guided artists through centuries to capture  the spirit of the times by capturing its essence and its most significant traits, Reem R. carefully observes and dissects her surroundings, capturing their most meaningful and symbolic elements. While not setting out initially to become a portraitist of our societies, her artistic journey unfolded organically. During her Multimedia Design studies at the American University of Sharjah, Reem R embarked in a painting course that turned her long-time passion for painting into an art career. Guided by her professor Philip Sheil, she delved into the intricate techniques of oil painting and cultivated her distinctive style. Drawing inspiration from both the Old Masters and her contemporaries, such as painters Chloe Wise and Emilio Villaba, Reem is developing a body of work that invites us to delve into a mysterious universe of signs, stories and riddles.

One of her early pivotal works is Self Portrait II (2019), where each detail is imbued with personal symbolism. The peeled oranges pay a discrete tribute to Reem’s mother, who would leave them around the house to perfume it. For the painter, the scent of freshly peeled oranges lingers in her memory and the act of peeling itself revisits a peaceful and meditative memory. On the second plane of the painting, Reem paints herself. In one hand, she holds a large, seemingly heavy orange, while her other hand is softly resting on her arm, as if hugging herself. Her gaze is directed towards us but she, who is both the painter and the model, is actually staring at herself. In her own words, Self Portrait II was above all, an act of self-love and healing that reinforced her belief in the power of art.

"Self-Portrait II"

Self-Portrait II

This painting was decisive as it also signaled an evolution in her practice, and the development of two series. In the first one, « Strangers », she plays with the notion of anonymity and her subjective perceptions to create new narratives based on human figures that caught her attention in public space; whether at the beach, at the museum or in the subway. In Stranger in London (2021), it was her encounter of a man’s body language on public transport that sparks a curiosity and a desire to render the man’s impression on her. 3/4 of this vertical painting are composed of solid blue block while the bottom part of the painting shows the stranger’s feet, awkwardly positioned. The greyness of the subway, the blackness of the man’s shoes and pants, and his position of discomfort convey a feeling of dullness, deliriously offset by the electric blue. Stranger in Marbella (2021) uses a similar composition process with half of the painting being covered by a monochromatic yellow block while the second half depicts a young ephebe standing alone in the sand, his arms resting loosely on his hips and his gaze directed towards a white ship, sailing on the horizon. The blocks of colour act both to alert and to hide. They are the remains of a distinct impression, evoked in masterful realistic strokes in one part of the paintings, whilst obscured by total abstraction in the other.

Stranger in London & Stranger in Marbella

In her second series, « Still life », she continues her engagement with the history of painting, depicting everyday objects that are transposed into enigmatic universes. Against a monochromatic backdrop, usually a wall, the artist sets the scene with a glistening fabric that will become her second canvas, on which she will unfold her masterful painting skills and expansive palette. Then, come the objects, a mixture of kitsch, daily consumable items and secret, almost tantric motifs that carry hidden meanings. Citruses, especially oranges, symbolize the Palestinian people’s ancestral homeland and their nostalgia for hopes of independence. For Reem, a Palestinian born and living between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the recurrence of citruses, sometimes with the Palestinian flag as in His Bitter Sweetness (2021), conveys a sense of longing and remembrance of a lost homeland. Lilies, with their erotic charge combining fertility and death are another recurring symbol; as are the child-like cars that hunker on the edge of the squares and the kitchen utensils, drawn like hieroglyphs. 

His Bitter Sweetness

In Last Night (2023), Her Apple (2021) and Lilies and the Last Meal (2020), the lilies and oranges are juxtaposed with ultra-garish food items -cans of Pepsi and Coca-Cola; a shiny burger, Ketchup and chicken McNuggets. Junk food is elevated to a metaphysical status: a burger topped with a candle marks the joyful celebration of a group of friends and a can of Coca-Cola sits side by side, next to a Roman bust: the artist is comfortable with high and low cultural references, she's fully aware of her post, post-modern actuality. By merging highly realistic techniques with ultracontemporary pop art, Reem creates paintings that transform the banal into contemplative studies of contemporary society. The paintings are mirrors, reflecting back on consumerism, the pangs of nostalgia, and the ephemeral nature of existence. 

Last NightHer Apple & Lilies and the Last Meal 

The artist's perpetual dialogue with the history of art doesn’t stop here as she also stages herself in her paintings as a wink to famous masterpieces. In the fresco painting The Creation of Adam (c. 1512), Italian artist Michelangelo depicted the moment described in the Book of Genesis in which God gives life to Adam, the first man, by outstretching his fingers into that of Adam. Reem replicates this iconic - and ironic- gesture in Lilies and the Last Meal but it is her own finger that replaces Adam’s as it tries to reach to the sectioned hand of a doll. Whether the artist is here trying to breathe life to this inanimate object, to reconnect with a symbol of childhood and innocence or suggesting the unattainability of it is left to our interpretation; as always with Reem, each painting in an open question. In some other works, such as Feels Citrusy (2020), her irruption in the painting becomes a pretext to further play with her virtuoso painting skills and her attachment to space and color composition. 

Feels Citrusy

In her most recent body of work, Reem challenges the very structure she had imposed on her pictorial spaces until now. Breaking free from composition, she moves into a new genre where dark-blue, almost black, abstract backgrounds explode all sense of linear narration to welcome in seemingly random but joyful arrangements of floating objects, child-like scribbles, and surreal symbols. These enigmas are not without clues, for those who have been decrypting Reem’s artistic grammar. The ladder in the bottom left corner of her painting, November (2021) evokes the challenge artists encounter in taking the first few very weighty steps towards starting a work but it is also an invitation to us, viewers, to climb into Reem’s poetic conundrums.


Reem is not easy to capture nor to define, just like her work. What struck the most in her paintings at first glance are her bold palette, incredible painting skills, and unusual composition. Then, the eye gets accustomed to them and starts looking into them, creating links, parallels, connections between her paintings and their elusive and yet expansive repertoire. For Reem, painting is not just a means of expression and artistic experimentation, but a living almanac of knowledge, healing and remembrance. Beneath the skilled layers of oil paint and the erudite clin d'oeils to the history of art, is a portrait of a young artist who is questioning everything around her and comes back with no answers; in a way, Reem's work offers a portrait of each of us. 

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