Based in London, Soraya Syed is an internationally renowned classically trained calligrapher, artist, and filmmaker. She continually works to push the boundaries of what is expected from this traditional art form. Soraya takes the written word off the page into film, dance and VR and has worked with the likes of Google, the British Museum and Royal Shakespeare Company.
Letter Waws Embracing, Soraya Syed, @artofthepen
In 2005, Soraya was awarded the sought-after icazetname (the authoritative Islamic calligraphy licence) from Istanbul. Her practice is a process of disciplined freedom where she enjoys the constant tension between remaining true to her classical training while exploring further possibilities.
We talk to Soraya about her journey to receiving the ijazah, the evolution of her calligraphic practice and her thoughts on the future of this art.
Growing up were you always interested in art and culture?
From the age of nine, I knew art was for me when a lantern I had made for a school project was selected for a regional competition and exhibition. I felt this was something I enjoyed doing and was good at. I come from a mixed heritage background, my mother is French and my father, Pakistani. Growing up, my grandfather on my mother’s side would take me to visit various museum collections in Paris and London. He had a passion for impressionist paintings, William Turner was his favorite artist. He instilled in me a deep appreciation of painting and was training my eye to look at art from an early age.
Soraya Syed at her studio, photo by Nicol Vizioli
Can you tell us more about your education and learning journey?
When I was in my late teens, I had started to discover Islamic art in the collections at the V&A and British Museum. I was especially drawn to the objects with Arabic calligraphy. I couldn’t read or write Arabic and had no idea how to study this artform but was determined to find out.
While I was at art school at Central Saint Martins, London, I went on Umrah and saw the Kaaba for the first time – I made a prayer that the next time I returned to Mecca, I would be able to read and write Arabic. Several years later, I was invited back to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to teach Arabic calligraphy to members of the Royal family and performed Umrah for the second time with my prayer being answered.
You have a degree in Arabic and History of Art and Archaeology, and a master’s in Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts. What led you to study Islamic calligraphy specifically?
My Turkish master told me that the letters choose you, you do not choose them. My journey to becoming a calligrapher has been dotted with blessed moments one after the other. As part of my Arabic degree, I went to Alexandria for u year abroad. I had made the strongest intention to start learning Arabic calligraphy while there. In the first week of arriving, I was trying to ring a friend and accidentally dialed a wrong number. The person on the other end of the phone was very kind realizing I was a foreigner and said if I needed anything to get in-touch. I found out he was a calligrapher and I started lessons with him the same week.
Once I returned to London from Egypt my calligraphy teacher told me he had taken me as far as he could and to find to find a new teacher. These were the early days of the internet and before social media, so it was not easy an easy task.
Then in 1999, a group of artisans from Istanbul offering apprenticeships came to the UK. As fate has it, my now husband told me about the opportunity. He had signed up for the calligraphy apprenticeship but was unable to take the time off work so offered his place to me.
It was here that I met my Turkish Master Efdaluddin Kilic. The apprenticeship began in Norwich Mosque for two weeks. I would then send my practice work to Istanbul by post to be reviewed. It would take three months between lessons, and I felt I wasn’t getting very far. I took the decision to move to Istanbul after completing my MA so I could concentrate on pursuing my calligraphy studies.
What are your fondest memories of training to become a calligrapher?
There are so many, I guess it’s an accumulation of all these wonderful stories. A moment I will always remember is when my calligraphy master or hoca (pronounced hoja), took me to meet his master, Hattat Hasan Çelebi for the first time. From there he took me to the graveyard to pay respects to the master calligraphers who were buried there. Hardly any words were exchanged but I felt in the process of these visits, I had learnt an immense amount. I realized the huge responsibility of learning the art of calligraphy, and that it is a tradition passed down.
We are custodians of this artform and must ensure it continues.
Another moment was again from my first visit to Istanbul, I had bought all the necessary materials to take back with me to London and I was getting ready to catch my flight but there was one tool I was missing - a calligraphy knife. Unintentionally, I ended up missing my flight and the following day was gifted a calligraphy knife. The generosity I was shown as a new student by others is something I will always remember; I was really struck by the generosity. I hadn’t met any other foreign students when I first started to visit Istanbul, so I guess I was a novelty.
How did your calligraphy master influence your creative process now?
The master-apprentice relationship never ends and continues. If I am working on a classical piece, I still ask Efdaluddin Hoca for his feedback. You always want to improve your work and receive advice. Efdal Hoca is very flexible, open to new ideas which has given me the space to grow and evolve as a calligrapher. His open-mindedness and approach to calligraphy is probably his greatest influence on me.
"Each person acts according to his own disposition", Quran 17:84, Soraya Syed @artofthepen
You were the first Briton to receive the rare icazetname Ijazah or calligrapher’s license from Istanbul, Turkey. What was the process like and how did that feel?
It was very moving; I could see my teacher was emotional. It was a formal ceremony, a very special occasion held at IRCICA at the Yildiz Palace in 2005. My training took around seven years to complete in total if I include my year in Egypt. I am very thankful for the opportunity to be part of the silsila or genealogy of Islamic calligraphers.
Soraya Syed’s Ijazah 2005 illuminated by Fatma Özçay
Your work takes the essence of Islamic calligraphy into different contexts. Can you tell us more about how you explore this traditional artform in a contemporary way?
Traditionally, a calligrapher’s main purpose is to provide a service. Being in the UK, the needs of my community are different so working out how I can best serve has been interesting. I wanted to make Islamic calligraphy accessible and relevant to the people around me. This inspired me to explore how I could be more creative in using my skills to reach a wider audience. It is a solitary experience working as a calligrapher, I was keen to work collaboratively and learn new skills in the process. This led me to animation and film.
A still from the Hurriyah animation, 2013
In 2016, you were commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce a work based on a piece of writing by Shakespeare. The resulting piece, A Deep Sleep, is your response to the line 'This sleep is sound indeed' from Henry IV Part 2, where Prince Hal sees his father. What was the creative journey like?
I really enjoyed that commission because the process involved collaborating with the costume department at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was able to go behind the scenes and see how the theatre works. I worked closely with one of their jewelry designers, so it is a distinctive piece. The crown is life sized and can be worn. It was featured as part of a group show at the RSC that also went to the Barbican, London.
A Deep Sleep crown for the RSC. Photo by David Tett, 2016
You have also collaborated on projects with Google and the British Museum. What has been the most memorable project you have worked on and why?
I am very fortunate to have had many opportunities. The Google film experience was amazing as it was a huge learning curve and it brought me back to Istanbul. On the other hand, working with my dear teacher Prof Keith Critchlow as a consultant to the architects Marks Barfield - who designed the New Cambridge Mosque was unforgettable. To see one of my Square Kufic designs, end up on the brick work all over the mosque, is precious.
Cambridge Mosque brick work “Qul Huwa Allahu Ahad” Photo credit: Rooful Ali
What current projects are you working on?
I have a big project that I am preparing for next year. It is a bit too early to give any details but watch this space for news coming soon.
What does the future of Islamic art and culture look like to you?
It will be a very mixed picture. The definition of what Islamic art is may broaden. I think it will be hard to ignore things like fashion and beauty as the expectations of what Islamic art and culture is, evolves. It will be interesting to see what impact NFTs and the metaverse have. Whether we like it or not, art is always where the money is. I think traditional Islamic art and calligraphy in particular, will always be protected God Willing due to the training and master-apprenticeship system.
Caption/image: Soraya Syed at her London studio, 2019 Photo by Nicol Vizioli
For more information:
Follow Soraya on Instagram, Twitter & Facebook: @artofthepen
Check out her website: firstname.lastname@example.org
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