Kareemgraphy is a Doha-based experimental artist who has left his mark in calligraphy and graffiti. Some fifteen years ago in Medina, he felt a spark for calligraphy when he saw some colleagues doing it. As a professional designer, he spent fourteen years with Leo Burnett, a leading multinational advertising agency. Working at the agency’s Dubai and Doha offices, he helped shape the Middle East campaigns of many global brands. Last year, FIFA and the local organising committee commissioned him to create some stunning graffiti at various Qatar World Cup 2022 venues.
Kareem continues to learn from the masters and mentors young artists. He held workshops in Istanbul, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, and many Indian cities. He champions many causes and responds to social issues through his art. To popularise calligraphy in India, he founded Kagrart in Calicut in 2020. Over the years, he’s been featured by many media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Al Ahram, Gulf Times, Al Kaas TV, The Peninsula, Al Raya, Deccan Herald, and MediaOne.
We talked to Kareemgraphy about his journey as an artist, future aspirations and the inclusion of Arabic calligraphy art in mainstream spaces.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your journey to becoming an artist?
When I was ten, my father bought a calligraphy poster from a wandering sufi seller to frame and hang on the wall. It depicted a man in Attahiyat—a sitting posture of Muslim prayer. I used to look at it for hours, trying to decipher the writings’ meaning. It prompted me to start strokes even though I didn’t know it was a work of calligraphy.
Then there was a neighbour and friend, Mohammed Noushad, whose father kept a well-stocked library of Islamic classics, whose covers were done in calligraphy. Noushad often took me to cybercafes in Calicut to show me the wider world of Islamic art. We must contribute to Islamic art, Nousahad would share his thoughts with me.
Then there was an inspiration by a commercial artist named CT Ali. He took me under his wing. His drawing was amazing. He had a taste for Calligraphy. He was my first boss who seriosuly paid me.
And finally my fellow artists from Madinah, where I worked for three years from 2000. Egyptian Atif and Sudani Bakri Zaki taught me to play with the Arabic alphabet. The calligraphy and geometric work in Prophet Muhammed’s Mosque (PBUH) also influenced me.
You’ve said that your calligraphy is different from the traditional Arabic style of calligraphy. For those who may not be familiar with Arabic calligraphy, what are some of its trademark components and how is it different from the style you use in your work?
As I understand, traditional Arabic calligraphy is very much rules-bound, and as a student of masters, I respect those rules. At the same time, as a contemporary artist, I explored the medium with further freedom and experimented with the abstract associated with modern art. And I feel people love it.
How has the artistic freedom of street culture, and creating street art influenced your practice?
The street has always freed and inspired me. Performing in front of people and talking to them increased my confidence.
How did you create such an identifiable unique artistic style?
I didn’t consciously try to create a style; it came organically. The more I did, a style emerged.
How do you relate your work to both local and global audiences?
The Arabic strokes have a global appeal, which can also speak to the local audience.
Can art promote social change and provide a scope for dialogue?
Art can raise questions that can lead to change.
Does your audience need to understand Arabic when they view your work?
No. I aim to make my work accessible to all, irrespective of their knowledge of Arabic.
What emotions do you hope your work conveys and what impact do you hope it has on the viewer?
Peace and joy.
Can you describe your creative process, and give us some insight into what goes through your head, from concept to creation?
When I get a commission, I brainstorm for some time, sometimes two or three days, for bigger projects. Taking a stroll before work is a norm. Then I draw a blueprint either on paper or on iPad.
Who are your favourite artists?
Elseed, Hassan Massoudy and Pokras Lampas
What has been your most challenging project?
Graffiti for FIFA 2022
How has your creative vision and art influenced Arabic typography more widely?
Many artists from Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia and Turkey shared their work, saying my style influenced them. Upon invitation by those who liked my work, I conducted workshops and live calligraphy sessions in a few of the countries mentioned above. But my biggest contribution was to popularise Arabic calligraphy in India, especially in the south.
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you, and how has your art practice grown or changed?
I practice early morning except on days when I have a meeting. I keep the ink and qalam close to me even though I currently don’t use them. I want to look frequently at some plants, Islamic Art and paraphernalia I bought from travel.
Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic art tradition?
Nothing per se. But I’m largely influenced by Ottoman calligraphy.
What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, do you think it has a place in mainstream spaces?
I see a bright future for Arabic calligraphy as thousands of youngsters have entered the field recently. It’s now everywhere: in the living room, on the streets, and T-shirts and coffee mugs. The art of Arabic calligraphy has become a lifestyle.
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