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Deconstructing Calligraphy, Sasan Nasernia

Born in Tehran, Sasan Nasernia began his career primarily as a calligrapher and typography artist. Exploring different avenues in Persian classical and also modern calligraphy, he has since expanded his practice to include painting, print, digital work and installation.

We talk to Sasan about turning Arabic letters into an abstract language, the concept behind Crazy Kufik and deconstructing the rules of Arabic and Persian writing.

How did your creative journey begin?

In my family there aren’t any artists or art enthusiasts, so when during my childhood I showed some signs of artistic talent, it was well received by my parents. My father paid special attention to my handwriting and bought me some rudimentary lessons which I think sowed the seeds of interest in calligraphy for me. In my teenage years I started to take it more seriously and attempted to learn classic calligraphy and some of its basic rules, however I didn’t follow it for too long as I was not interested in following the rigid rules and wanted to do something unique and new. In my university years where I studied graphic design, I kept working at it frequently, mostly deconstructing letterforms on computer, however it took me a good decade before I found the courage to share my actual canvases with the world.

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?

Well, the sources of inspiration are many, from the past masterworks of both Iran and the world to works of the contemporary icons. Artists like Cy Towmbly, Basquiat, Pollock, Wool, Soulages,…the list can go on and on. Studying these masters and looking at their evolution has always been educational for me. I also draw a lot of inspiration from music. I listen to a wide range of musical styles, from Jazz and classical to electronic and progressive rock.

Your work pushes boundaries, turning Arabic letters into an abstract language that communicates with everyone, even those who don’t speak Arabic. How have you created a universal connection to the art form?

I’m glad that you have picked up on that aspect. I believe the calligraphy-inspired art is and should be a universal language and my effort has been in that direction. These days my art, cannot be confined to only one language and mostly are asemic abstract letterforms pointing toward meanings beyond the physical embodiments of forms and materials. It really makes me happy to see that my work is appreciated by people from all corners of the globe, from Brazil to Russia and Middle East to Japan,…I’m happy to have a wide range and cosmopolitan audience.

Through your work you are interested in the tension between two opposing primordial elements of order and chaos. Can you tell us more about this concept and is it a central part of your work?

The perpetual interplay between order and chaos, along with the notion of unity of existence have been my main philosophical areas of interest, and over the years I have delved into various subjects, such as physics, astronomy, geometry, philosophy and history, in order to better understand our world which is shaped by these forces.

We as humans are the utmost expression of order and beauty in this universe (at least as far as our five senses and limited knowledge allow us to recognize). But as everyone has surely experienced, nothing in and around us remains the same. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that every ordered system, inevitably and over time tends toward disorder. This is the one single universal fact about this existence which has huge philosophical repercussions for us as finite and orderly beings. In such a system, where do we find and define meaning and how we can create and evolve? This question keeps me awake at night and inexorably seeps into my creations.

Kufic is the oldest calligraphic form of the various arabic scripts. How did you create your signature style of writing which you refer to as ‘Crazy Kufic’?

As you know the name Kufic comes from the city of Kufa, one of the early Islamic cities in Iraq which during the first Hijri century after the first wave of Islamic conquest and before the rise of Baghdad, became the main seat of the new empire and its administrative organization. In Kufa and in those early years, Arabic calligraphy was in its embryonic stage where each and every clerk, from both Arab and Persian heritage, tried their hand at contributing to the evolution of its forms and aesthetics. It is said that at some point there was more than 35 types of Kufic! Until third Hijri century when Ibn Muqla, inspired by all of the existing Kufic styles invented Thuluth and Naskh and ended the prominence of Kufic. I’m telling this short story to highlight the free and unrestricted nature of those early years before styles become solidified. As over the years I deconstructed the Arabic letterforms and bent the rules till my own style took shape; it seemed to me as if I am getting inspired by those early unrestrained years in Kufa. Why crazy? because the only rule in it is “no rule”. Moreover, crazy in Arabic is pronounced “Majnun”, and it is the name of a famous character in the popular ancient love story of “Leyla and Majnun”.

You deconstruct the rules of arabic and persian writing, did you train in the art of traditional Arabic calligraphy?

Yes I studied Naskh and Thuluth and to a lesser degree, Nastaliq. Although as a self-thought student I cannot claim mastery in any of those styles but it gave me enough understanding of aesthetics, proportions and rhythm.

How has your creative vision and art influenced Arabic typography more widely?

That remains to be seen and I certainly am not the one who should answer that question. Today there are many many calligraphers trying their hand at contemporary calligraphy. Thanks to social media platforms, everyone has a chance to bee seen and become known. Being able to stand out among the crowds and hopefully reserve a place in the history of this magnificent form of art is something which requires talent combined with lots of effort. Being aware of this fact, I constantly keep pushing the envelope and try new ideas. I believe the spirit of our time requires that kind of boundless creativity.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Apart from other art forms, that I mentioned before; philosophy and spirituality are massive sources of inspiration and meaning for me. I have been practicing meditation as long as I have professionally created art and both practices have been so intertwined that my art is inexorably informed by my spiritual journey.

The other major source of inspiration for me is nature with all its beauty, complexity and harmony in both small and large scales.

What does a typical day in the studio look like for you, and how has your art practice grown or changed?

I try not to be entangled in an automatic and repetitive schedule. Sometimes, I even keep away from studio to walk in nature or do other things to get inspired and get hungry for work. For me repetitiveness is a killer of creativity and I try to avoid it at all costs! Once I have a good idea, I go at it and work till it is finished. Then I step back and let it talk to me and open new doors of perception.

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

I recently created two canvases for my show at Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival, which were specifically inspired by the philosophy of “Wahdat Al Vojood” (Unity of Existence), expounded by the “Sheikh Al Akbar, Ibn Al Arabi. In that I referenced Islamic geometric proportions juxtaposed in circular composition, like those geometric designs seen inside the mosques domes.

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

Undoubtedly. I think art movements like any other human affairs have a cyclical nature. What has been out of fashion, becomes fashionable and vise versa. From what I have been observing in recent years, spiritual and alchemical notions and arts inspired by them are enjoying a resurgence. In that, there is a massive potential for Islamic and mystically inspired art to achieve new heights and by employing a contemporary approach, claim a prominent status in the world of art. This task is upon us who are informed and nourished by this rich tradition.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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