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Meet The First Arab Virtual Reality Artist Who Is Pioneering VR In The Art World

Najla Al-Khalifa. Photographed by Sueraya Shaheen.

Virtual Reality has been the biggest buzzword within the tech world in recent years, and with good reason. Virtual Reality, or VR for short, is slowly becoming the latest, innovative must-have gadget. The development of VR technology has now made the experience more accessible to use in educational programs, video games, and most recently, art.

Not to be confused with 3D animation, Virtual Reality Art (VR Art) uses the VR headset and controllers to create a virtual space that viewers are able to immerse themselves into. Established VR artists are already appearing all over the world, along with the development of several VR art programs.

We talked to one such emerging artist who claims to be one of the first Arab VR artists to date. Najla Al-Khalifa is a Washington DC and Bahrain based VR artist who uses the new medium for her immersive works. Viewers are able to “walk into” her virtual paintings, that usually have an emphasis on themes of art history, archeology, and the human condition. Her work on ancient Dilmun culture is currently on view as a part of the 45th Bahrain Annual Fine Arts Exhibition.

“Both Image 1 & 2 are a part of the same VR video that I have submitted to the 45th Bahrain Annual Fine Arts. The video begins with what you see in Image 1, a depiction of ruins from ancient Dilmun.”


“Continuing from Image 1, the video progresses into an environment that shows a colorful and lush Dilmun, trying to stay true to its historical and mythological descriptions of being “paradise.” The art in this part of the video is directly influenced by the art style on Dilmun seals and artifacts.”

Can you set the record straight on VR artists?
A VR artist is an artist that does their work in a Virtual Reality environment. With a VR headset on they use two controllers (or Wands, as some people call them) to create or manipulate the environment that they are in. A viewer is then able to wear the VR headset and be completely immersed in the artist’s work. It’s an incredible way to experience art differently. VR artists also usually create videos of their art within the environment, as a more accessible way to view their work.

“I have a small ongoing series that helps me practice with different brushes and techniques while giving homage to my favorite artists from art history. This is a sketch of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” (version 3). When the headset is put on, the viewer is able to walk around the bedroom and observe details.”

How long have you used this medium?
I started in 2017, the same year the program that I frequently use was released, called Tilt Brush by Google. What appealed to me the most about the medium was that I was able to “experience” art rather than solely viewing or analyzing it.

Najla Al-Khalifa. Photographed by Sueraya Shaheen.

Have you printed up any art / 3D?
Yes, I have! Towards the end of 2017, I created a model of the Shaikh Salman bin Ahmed Al-Fateh fort, also known as the Riffa Fort, using VR. The model was then 3D printed multiple times to be used as embassy gifts, as part of the Bahrain National Day celebration at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. I loved the process of bringing art from my virtual world into our reality!

“A small sketch that was done in one day as part of my Virtual Reality ‘Inktober’ challenge. I drew a piece a day in Virtual Reality for the entire month of October following a prompt by the Ink artist Jake Parker. This image below from a VR sketch for the 23rd of October prompt ‘Muddy.’ I have decided to draw lotus flowers growing from a muddy pool.”

What is it like working in New Media?
It can feel slightly intimidating at times working with a medium that is in its beginning stages of development, but it’s also satisfying to explore, experiment, and experience something completely new. VR is mainly talked about as an educational tool or an immersive way to play video games but is now beginning to be used for art. The VR art community is constantly growing as the technology becomes more accessible, and I’m fortunate to have met several of these talented international VR artists through social media. I’m especially honored to be a part of the growing social media hashtag #womeninVR which has helped me connect with talented women VR artists from the US, the UK, and Japan! I have not met another Arab VR artist yet, but introducing VR as a medium for artists in the region is definitely one of my goals.

“The image above is from an early VR work from 2017. The VR sketch depicts a historical building reminiscent of the old Bahraini houses in the island of Muharraq. The building is slowly deconstructing (or “glitching”), depicting the real-life deconstruction of historical Bahraini homes to make way for business and commerce.”

Have you been in the exhibition before — it’s in its 45th year…
This is my first time taking part in this prestigious exhibition! I was hesitant to submit my VR work last year, only because it would be the first artwork of its kind presented and I was not confident enough to take that step yet. After hearing of my acceptance this year, I met with a lot of positive feedback. I grew more confident in my work being recognized as innovative and almost revolutionary.

Read Next: Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi’s Mission Is Putting A Spotlight On The Middle East Art Scene

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