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Iraqi Artist Wissam Shawkat on Reshaping the Art of Calligraphy

Wissam Shawkat

Wissam Shawkat. Photo: Supplied

Iraqi calligrapher Wissam Shawkat is an early riser. He wakes up motivated to create, driven by an innate passion for his work. His approach is a fascinating hybrid of geometry and fluidity that has birthed a unique style in this discipline that doesn’t abide by any presumed set of rules. This makes his work as captivating to look at as it is to hear the artist himself talk about, as we were to find out.

Why calligraphy?

I fell in love with calligraphy when I was ten years old. Why? I didn’t see a beautiful piece, just these simple letters written in chalk on a blackboard. My schoolteacher wrote four letters – alif, bay, jeem, and daal – in very simple form: ruqa, which is a basic style. It must have been the form – the hierarchical values, the shapes. I use these letters the most in my current exhibition ‘The Pursuit of Rhythm’ at Showcase Gallery. Movements such as cubism also play with geometrical forms and my work is a dialogue between western abstract art and the tradition of Arabic calligraphy.

What is your creative process like?

I start with a lot of sketches in pencil, scribbles, and text ideas (if the artwork is based on text). Once I am happy with a certain design or composition, I start to write with a calligraphic pen in order to get the feel of the strokes and the lines. I then work in layers of tracing paper, using many of them until I have perfected the composition and the calligraphy strokes. This stage could technically be after 10 layers of tracing paper from the original concept or sketch. Finally, I start to plan the finished look of the artwork. I select the colors, paper, or canvas, and the final element of the artwork, which leads to a finished creation. My work has many styles and directions, from more calligraphic classical direction to more modern abstract artworks, so the process differs sometimes depending on that, but the starting point is always the same.

You’ve been described as somewhat of a rule breaker. How so?

As Pablo Picasso said, “In order to break the rules, you need to master them first”. Therefore, I have used the traditional styles and its rules as a point of departure for something new. My current work bridges classical and traditional calligraphy. While much of my work has a modern look and feel, I still practice and create traditional calligraphy. Over the past ten years, I have created my own contemporary script, which I call Al Wissam. It is a new calligraphic script based on several historic styles Sunbuli, Jali Diwani, Eastern Kufic, and Thuluth.

My approach to calligraphy is, in many ways, in keeping with the rigid proportions and restrictions that the art form demands and indeed, relies upon to maintain it’s aesthetic equilibrium. However, at the same time, I create something completely fresh, finding new forms and shapes that respect the rules whilst simultaneously breaking them. It is supervised freedom that goes against common methods that many traditional calligraphy practitioners are almost indoctrinated with during the process of learning. Within this rebellion, the very letters themselves are Shawkat’s weapons. In a kind of paradoxical relationship with the language and unlike many purists, I separate the words from their meanings so that the curves, lines, and dots become graphic symbols and aesthetic compositions rather than text.

How does art make you feel, and how do you want people to feel when they engage with your work?

I’m totally against the idea of people being able to read my work. For me, legibility is the enemy of the creative. I have a saying: I don’t want people to understand what I have written unless the work is that. I want people to look at the design, the relationships of the composition. I need people to discover what’s written. If you write something just to read it, it’s not art. Here, I’m liberating calligraphy from the text. It’s just a visual form.

Tell us about your most memorable projects or collaboration.

Although I have collaborated with many important clients and brands, such as Hermes, Rolex, Hublot, Patek Philippe, Jaguar Cars, Tiffany & Co, Montblanc, Loro Piana, and Chanel, there is one memory from December 2013 that has stuck with me. During the Mubadala Tennis Championship, I was asked to come down to Abu Dhabi very early in the morning, to a hotel where a photo-shoot was taking a place. Whilst there, I was asked to write two names in calligraphy for the Tennis legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Afterward, I remember Roger Federer approaching me to shake my hand and tell me that it was a pleasure meeting me. I remember thinking, “me?!” The pleasure was all mine.

What are you working on currently?

I am working on many projects in parallel. Some are fine art pieces and some are commissions. I also have a few ongoing logo and branding projects – some which must remain secret until they launch shortly.

We are living in testing and transformative times – how can art help us to grow and evolve to be better?

I have always believed that calligraphy can have a dynamic effect on the way we see and understand the world. Words are our essential tools of communication with each other, but in an enormously fast-evolving world, the forms in which these words are rendered must reflect our time and place. I think that tradition is to be highly respected, but not imitated. Foundations must not change, but what we build upon them should be done with freedom. Although my work can be described as a departure from the classic Islamic calligraphy, I have never lost sight of the many years of evolution that shaped every Arabic letter into its remarkable beauty. I can describe my present work as a transition into the present; not in a detached way, but within the reality that today we are living in a world that is a blend of science and romance.

Wissam’s ‘The Pursuit of Rhythm’ exhibition showcasing a collection of prints, posters, and original works is currently running until 20th September at the Showcase Gallery in Al Serkal.

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