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Arabic Calligraphy & Heritage, Shazia Daud

Shazia Daud is a Islamic artist and traditionally trained calligrapher. As a mother of two young children, Shazia tries to utilise the limited time she has towards creating bespoke pieces of art that inspire remembrance and deep reflection of the Almighty and His Words. Her journey has taken a traditional route into Islamic art, studying the Arabic script of Naskh for the last 6 years under the tutelage of her Ustaad, dedicating hours and hours to disciplined practice to perfect her craft and hone her skills. Shazia’s art is mainly influenced by the Quran, her heritage and her travels to Muslim cities rich in Islamic art.

She was recently a part of the ‘In Praise’ exhibition based in Leicester, UK alongside other female Islamic artists which was also featured on the BBC East Midlands News. Shazia teaches workshops for women & children and she actively volunteers her time in the community on projects that use art to help people cope with mental health and anxiety. We talk to Shazia about her connection to Arabic calligraphy, where she finds inspiration and Islamic art in mainstream cultural spaces.

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your journey to becoming an artist?

I have loved art from as far back as I can remember; it was something that intrigued me from a young age. I was a very reserved and timid child so you would usually find me hidden in some corner with a colouring book for hours on end. As I grew older, I became increasingly fascinated by intricate henna patterns and the artists’ ability to transform something as ordinary as hands into elaborate works of art. I would find myself doodling and designing henna patterns on any pieces of paper I could get my hands on. I took Art as a GCSE and that’s what really ignited my love of painting and acrylics. It was around this time I received my first commission: a chance flick through one of my art sketchbooks and someone asked me to produce an Arabic calligraphy painting for them. Reluctantly, I agreed, despite having never attempted or practised Arabic calligraphy in my life. I gave it a go and everyone absolutely loved it; I was so happy that something I created bought joy to people. However, I didn’t end up pursuing my passion for art, and instead went down the conventional route of studying another interest of mine: the sciences.

My artistic journey really commenced after I got married during a brief holiday in Istanbul. I was completely mesmerised and enchanted by the architecture of the beautiful mosques which were decorated with such intricate geometric patterns and graceful calligraphy. Living in the UK you don’t come across Islamic Art in our architecture at all so to be surrounded by it 24/7 was a feast for my eyes. My appreciation for Islamic arts was increased tenfold and it re-ignited that artistic flame that had dimmed over the years. I bought myself a ‘Try it Yourself’ Arabic calligraphy book which came with a bottle of ink and a bamboo pen. I spent many evenings and weekends trying to make my writing look even a fraction as good as the book but alas it did not happen. In 2016, as an anniversary present, my husband booked me onto 10 Arabic calligraphy lessons at our local mosque; bearing in mind I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, I didn’t think it would be something I would have time to pursue but the universe conspired to favour this dream of mine. The first lesson finished and I was hooked! Alhumdulillah I have been studying the Arabic Calligraphy script of Naskh for about 6 years now with my Ustaad Molana Sulaimaan Desai.

Can you tell us more about how your Arabic calligraphy connects to your cultural heritage?

Arabic calligraphy for me is very indicative of seeing it in my childhood: the way the covers of our Qurans were ornamented with patterns; the beautiful Arabic calligraphy frames that were always hung in our grandparents’ homes; various ornaments & plaques with verses from the Quran; the calligraphy used to decorate mosques we would frequent as children. Seeing Arabic calligraphy around our homes throughout my childhood helped establish my Muslim identity in the west. Now that I am older, I would like to create pieces of art that decorate the homes of people where they can also connect to their faith as I did when I was younger.

How did you create such an identifiable unique artistic style?

My Ustaad has always shown me examples of work by incredibly talented Turkish calligraphers. I am constantly amazed at how neat, balanced and graceful their calligraphy is and I have always aspired to bring that level of detail, consistency and accuracy to my own work. However, it does require an immense amount of patience and dedication and I usually have to spend hours and hours on single letters - it’s a very precise science. When I create a painting, I try not to have too much going on visually, I prefer the calligraphy to be the focal point of my piece; I want the viewer to walk away having focussed on the calligraphy and reflected on its beauty as well as the patterns around it. I like my pieces of art to be a blend of calligraphy and mix of geometric and floral patterns.

Does your audience need to understand Arabic when they view your work?

Of course, being able to understand the verses written in the painting helps the viewer appreciate it at a deeper spiritual level, but it’s not actually necessary at all! Arabic calligraphy is aimed to be written in a fluid manner to convey harmony, grace & beauty and anyone who loves art will admire it’s beauty. Centuries ago, calligraphers used to write the Quran in calligraphy to enhance the beauty of its message – it was one of the ways how Islamic art helped spread the word of Islam. In March I was part of an Islamic Art exhibition and many non-muslims who visited the gallery were able to appreciate the art. I remember one gentleman in particular who commented on the fact that despite his inability to read Arabic, he could see how beautifully it was crafted; the lines and curves of the writing drew him in and he felt a sense of peace just looking at the words. It brought about an opportunity for him to ask about the verses and their meaning giving him the chance to reflect on the words.

Can you describe your creative process and give us some insight into what goes through your head, from concept to creation?

Before I start any new piece, I like to choose a particular verse that I am feeling connected to at that time. I research the meaning in depth & ensure I have a good understanding of the reasons why it was revealed and the message behind it. This allows me to truly capture the essence of the verse I will be creating a painting about. The main focal point of all my pieces is the calligraphy. Before I even touch a canvas, I try and create a calligraphy composition with my qalam. It can take me weeks to find the correct placement of letters or which particular style of letters to use in order to make the whole piece look balanced and in proportion. I usually consult with my Ustaad at this stage and only continue with the piece if he approves. Depending on how big my painting is, I try to scale up my calligraphy on a large piece of paper; this process can take anything from a few weeks to months especially for a full-time mum of two! I always try and ensure that the accuracy of what I have written with my qalam gets translated into the larger version. For the background of my pieces my go-to method is usually blending acrylics together. I like to have a smooth, visually calm background in soothing colours. Painting the background normally takes me a day or two and is my absolute favourite part of creating a piece as I can let my creativity flow. Once I am happy with the background, I transfer the calligraphy onto the canvas before painting it as slowly & neatly as I can. Currently my favourite method for creating the calligraphy is using gold leaf; I just love the way it captures the light and gives the painting a spiritual feeling.

Who are your favourite artists?

My favourite artist (although he’s not technically an artist) would be my Ustaad. I am always blown away by his work when he shows me the pages of his calligraphy practice book. I am always in awe and walk away fully inspired by his work. I aim to one day be able to write at his level inshaAllah. Other artist that currently inspire me are various Turkish calligraphers such as Zaki Hashmi, Mehmed Ozcay & Muhammad Shawqi Efendi. I know I have a very long way to go before I reach the level of these masters of calligraphy, but seeing their work inspires me to try that little bit harder.

What has been your most challenging project?

I was recently invited to be a part of an Islamic Art exhibition hosted in Leicester titled: ‘In Praise’ - a celebration of Islamic Art from aspiring female artists from the Midlands. I only had around 12 weeks to prepare for the opening of the exhibition and I needed to create 3 large pieces. Bearing in mind that it usually takes me months to create a single piece of work, I worked tirelessly to be able to complete the pieces on time. I also had a clear idea of what I wanted my signature piece ‘The Exalted’ to look like: a 1m x 1m canvas with a central Quranic verse and large-scale geometric patterns in the background with lots and lots of gold leaf. Alhumdulillah- I did manage to complete it on time, just as I envisioned and it quickly became my favourite piece.

Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic Art tradition?

A lot of my love and appreciation for Islamic Arts has come as a result of my travels. Whenever we plan a holiday we always aim to factor in countries where there is a heavy presence of Islamic Art in architecture – Bayt Al Fann threads have been a key element in planning our travels! I’ve visited India, Cairo, Istanbul, Marakesh, Fez, Chefchaouen, Granada, Cordoba & Seville; all countries drowning in examples of traditional Islamic art - from calligraphy to plaster carving; you couldn’t help but walk away feeling completely inspired. The Exalted painting, I talked about earlier was definitely inspired by my travels to southern Spain. The background of the painting has a very plain beige colour covered in geometric patterns which represented the walls of the Alhambra in Granada. It was such a simple design feature in the palace, yet it magnified and elevated the beauty of the room. I tried to re-create that with my painting and I feel it has a similar effect.

What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy & Islamic art, do you think it has a place in mainstream spaces?

Yes, it most definitely does! In this day and age of technology many artists are now able to promote and showcase their work via social media to cultivate an interest to a mainstream audience. Islamic Art is no longer confined to exhibitions or holidays to Islamic lands, you can find amazing examples of Islamic Art on social media platforms from a diverse range of talented artists. This is reinvigorating an interest in Islamic arts and the use of traditional methods of creating pieces is allowing people to feel a sense of connection to our religious and spiritual heritage. I feel it has huge potential now if we, as artists utilise our talent and skills to also spread the beauty of Islamic Art by teaching young people. When I was younger we didn’t have any opportunities to learn about Islamic art – I want to change that for the youth of today by teaching young people or at least giving them a brief insight into the tradition. I feel like learning about traditional Islamic arts opens them up to a whole world of creativity that is fun yet still connected to their faith, giving them an opportunity to reflect and step away from the pressures of the modern world in order to find some solace in the beauty of Allah’s words: ‘Verily, Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty’.


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