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Calligraform, Wissam Shawkat

Wissam Shawkat is an artist of Arabic calligraphy. Born in Basra, Iraq, he was first introduced to Arabic calligraphy at the age of 10 by his primary school teacher Muhammad Ridha Suhail.

Wissam is largely self-taught in the rigorous medium, attaining mastery through book research and visits to various masters, museum and library collections throughout the region.

He has received numerous prizes for his calligraphy and has participated as both an artist and committee member at multiple editions of the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial and the Dubai International Calligraphy Exhibition. His style, which is referred to as Calligraform, focuses on the magnified precise forms of the letters but also the abstract shapes generated by examining the geometric spaces inside and outside of their structures.

Wissam is based in Dubai, where he is engaged full-time as an artist, designer and Arabic typographer. His work is regularly featured in books on Arabic calligraphy and typography, included in museum exhibitions and acquired by private collectors.

We talk to Wissam about his childhood interest in calligraphy, creating his own distinct style and script and the art of collaboration and partnerships.

Tell us about your background and where your creative journey began?

I started calligraphy in 1984 or a bit may be year earlier, It was my primary school teacher who influence that the most, plus my elder brother who had a book bought to him by my father also another factor that made me fall in love with calligraphy, I remember one day my teacher in the art class said we will learn calligraphy today and wrote some letters using chalk on the blackboard. Also I recall before that my elder brother one day came back from school and showed me a paper with his name written by his friend who use to love calligraphy and practice it, in that small note book paper, he had his name ( my brother ) written in different ways and styles. I fell in love with it and started to copy it, and at the same time my brother gave me a book and calligraphy pen, which was also a big influence, I still have that book till now.

However, this happiness did not last long. Schools had to stop due to the Iraq-Iran war where my city Basra, was heavily bombarded by missiles. We had to stay in underground shelters for a while until things calmed down before we could go back to school.

During those weeks I spent in the shelter, I was practicing all day long because there was nothing else as a kid to do, calligraphy was an escape for me. After that, I continued seeing my teacher and asked him lots of questions about the tools and some letters and how to write them.

However, the situation was getting worse during the war, life was really difficult. We had to run from shelter to shelter, and at the end we had to leave our home. Actually, there was no one left on our street due to the random bombings, so my family had to move to a safer place, and we moved to the North of Iraq to Mosul city till the war was over in 1988. Now back to my memories from that time, I remember when I was in Mosul city, during the holiday, I worked in a sign shop, I was 14years old at that time, I really enjoyed it because it allowed me to practice calligraphy with all sorts of media, from writing on cloth using a flat brush to writing on marble flat pieces then engraving them with acid, those were mainly for grave stones for martyrs from the war. This gave me allot of confidence in calligraphy plus I made some money during the holiday to buy some calligraphy books and tools!

What is it about calligraphy that you are drawn to?

“4 letters were enough for me to be captured all my life by the beauty of let­ters” There was a moment of happiness and discovery of something new ahead, and I only discovered in later years that I was drawn to calligraphy because of the abstract graphic qualities in letter forms, which affected and influenced my latter work allot.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

I think anything that has aesthetics and beauty can inspire my work, a certain form or shape can inspire me, also when it comes to a calligraphic piece that has a text, I usually work with a text that is positive or has a nice meaning.