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.
You have a very unique style, merging traditional Arabic calligraphy with contemporary visual arts. What art forms do you draw upon outside of the calligraphy world?
It was always that contemporary calligraphy works been created by a non-calligraphers and people who did not went through the study of classic calligraphy, made me feel there is something missing, you see in auctions, in exhibitions, and always the contemporary art scene, calligraphy work is usually at a very low standard except. When I started to travel and visit the museums around the world in the United states and Europe, and readiabout the contemporary art movements and how they developed gradually, made me think that contemporary calligraphy or modern calligraphy must come from someone who knows the calligraphy world and by someone who studied the traditional scripts, and for me as a person who love art in all its forms, I started to experiment and created a different body of works that reflects calligraphy with a contemporary twist.
The focus is on the graphic and visual aesthetic qualities of letter forms, away from using textures of colorful letters and big strokes and swooshes! Bauhause, Cubism, Geometrical abstractions .. all these movements influenced my contemporary work, until in 2014 I arrived to a body of work which I exhibited about it extensively and coined the term Calligraforms.
How do you utilize colour, shape and pattern in your paintings?
In my opinion, letters are distinctive visuals, which have a specific shape and figure. Therefore, everything that is visible to the eye can be simplified or abstracted to create an outline or an illustrative form. This is the ethos I carry when designing my Calligraforms. When approaching the calligraphic letters, I simplify them to their basic abstract form by eliminating the calligraphic qualities such as, the contrast of the strokes or altering the positive and negative space of the letter.
When it comes to colors, I work either with very subtle colors, or basic colors, I always try maintaining the original colors found in the traditional work or calligraphy.
Red is a color you see a lot in my work, this is like a homage to first color of ink I used when I was a kid and started practicing calligraphy.
How have you created a universal connection to the artform?
As calligraphers, we train in classical scripts, spending years upon years working towards mastering the form of each letter. We effectively study the letters inside out, focusing not only on the space around them, but also considering the black and white elements of the letters. It is in this idea that a solidified form, which was created centuries ago, can be reformed to fit the context of Contemporary art. Hence, my adapted forms become the foundation of the artworks created in the Calligraform style, this work exists without the constraints of the text or language, which is usually associated with the historical context of calligraphy and the strict rules in which it was bound.
How has your work shifted and evolved over time?
Although my work over the past two decades might look visually different from traditional calligraphy, I have never lost sight of all the years that have shaped these scripts into beautiful forms. Everything concerning my work is about celebrating the beauty found in the basics of letterforms and strokes in calligraphy.
Particularly in the “Al Wissam” style, where I merge the techniques found in traditional scripts with modern aesthetics to create works that take awareness from these writings, and infuses them into new letters, forms and compositions.
“Calligraforms”, on the other hand, represent the peak of celebrating all of the basics within calligraphy, such as letter aspects, spaces, rhythms, black and white areas, letter contours, and on top of all this, the form of the letter itself.
How has your creative vision and art influenced Arabic typography more widely?
People who practiced Arabic typography in the past, they were mostly people who studied design, when I started working in design and branding agencies 20 years ago, I noticed there is a lack in aesthetics and letter forms even by the work created by well-known Arabic designers or practitioner in the field, I noticed there is always a room for enhancement and changes, I discovered it was due to lack of serious study of the calligraphy art and letter forms, Arabic calligraphy or calligraphy in general is the backbone for Typography or type design, so when I started working in the field and mainly in creating logotypes using calligraphy, my work stand out due I guess to my deep knowledge in calligraphy, also when it comes to creating logos to match international brands ( like Chopard, Tiffany& Co. Hublot …etc.) , the common practice back then was to chop Latin letter parts and make the equivalent Arabic, resulting in very ugly Arabic that lost its identity, what I did is applying the aesthetic rules of Arabic letter forms to create a custom matching Arabic logotype, in addition to that the use of what is called Modern Arabic calligraphy was not something you see it a lot, so I used my Script Al Wissam in different variations to create contemporary and unique logotypes that became my signature style in the field.
You refer to your style and approach as Calligraform, can you tell us a little bit more about this?
The original ideas of Calligraforms and work started in 2014, but I coined the term in 2016, Calligraforms represent the birth of calligraphy in the world of abstract art. Many aesthetics exist in the traditional practice of calligraphy, within both the historical and classical scripts. Therefore, I see the journey of creating Calligraforms as producing an aesthetic, which respects tradition whilst attempting to evolve and adapt to the constant changing notion of modernity. By focusing on the magnified calligraphic details of the letters, my designs approach calligraphy from a purely abstract perspective. For the viewer, artworks created using Calligraforms are essentially conceptual, yet the core shapes and forms are either based on the conventional letters or the individual parts that make them whole.
In the majority of cases, when it comes to Modern and Contemporary Arabic calligraphy, we see works that often utilize calligraphic verses or letters to create a repetition of layers. It is within this process of layering traditional writings, that a calligrapher can form either a monotone aesthetic or a colorful texture. However, large brush strokes of letters are frequently used, which lack aesthetic value or connection with the original calligraphic forms. With this in mind, I strongly feel that a very small proportion of these works touch on the abstract aspect of the letterforms. Arabic letters are unique in the fact that they share rhythm, form, flow and harmony. Therefore, Calligraforms celebrate each of these aspects and the relationships they represent. A Calligraform experiments with the systems governing calligraphy, by exploring how the graphic qualities found within the individual letter or the word can be magnified to create separate forms.
Calligraforms should not be seen as representing a new trend or breaking away, but as a separate movement with the Contemporary Arabic calligraphic art, where works are based purely on magnified details of the letter. My work has simply adapted to the current context and whilst it pushes the boundaries, I have never attempted to alter tradition. Calligraforms honor the traditional Arabic calligraphy, yet make complex references to several movements in art, design, and architecture. From Abstraction to Futurism, Dadaism to Cubism, my focus is centered upon expressing the innovative voice of the Bauhaus, which can be heard in each respective era.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you, and how has your art practice grown or changed?
My studio is a small room located in my house, and it’s a mix of a design studio and art studio, these are the 2 disciplines that my works is focusing on, so usually early morning or late night you see me working on art pieces most of the time, where thing around me is quieter, while during the middle of the day I usually attend some meetings, answer calls or reply to emails or work on some design projects.
You have worked with a variety of different brands including Tiffany & Co., Chopard and Hermes, what has been your most memorable collaboration and why?
My work with these brands varied depending on the collaboration itself, like for Tiffany I designed there matching Arabic logo, for Chopard the same, while for Hermes, I designed the calligraphy on a perfume bottle for a special edition of that perfume, and so on with many brands.
I have many memorable collaborations done some years ago where I collaborated with Jo Malone London to create a limited edition in my name for a perfume that was launched in Ramadan, I also collaborated with then Vertue luxury phones brand where they launched 4 different limited editions with my calligraphy and name. Also, another notable collaboration was with Tashkeel art center in Dubai where I collaborated with them to create the balustrade design for the ENOC pavilion at Expo 2020.
Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic art tradition?
Traditional calligraphy itself is considered the highest form of Islamic art, so I guess most of my classical work that I produced they are true Islamic art, which I still practice till this day, my work evolved allot, as I created my own script; Al Wissam then created more contemporary works using traditional scripts then everything came to abstraction by introducing Calligraforms, but that does not mean I stopped working on the other styles or the different directions, in fact I enjoy very much that I can jump between all these style, so I am never bored !
What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, do you think it has a place in mainstream spaces?
For me the future of calligraphy looks bright, comparing it to where it was like 30 years ago, I think it’s doing very well now, it’s already been utilized in many places and areas, we can see full nations that paid attention to calligraphy, now the challenge is that understanding calligraphy and differentiating the different categories and aspects of it.
Also, I think calligraphy found its way through the advancement of technology and media in lots of applications and treatments.
For more information check out https://www.wissamshawkat.com/
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