Karim Jabbari is a world-renowned calligraphy and light artist. The love he has for light and letters is fueled by his passion to incorporate ancient elements into modern design. The main focus of his art is to build bridges between cultures and civilizations through calligraphy. He uses modern techniques while preserving the essence of classical forms and styles.
Because of his wide-ranging talent, he is often sought after to do live performances, art installations, large-scale murals, host workshops, serve as a panelist, and has given lectures in major universities like NYU and Yale. In Dubai, he was runner-up for the first Islamic Creativity Award and was recently named one of the Top 30 Public Artists in the world.
We talk to Karim about finding inspiration, creating his unique style and the future of Arabic calligraphy.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your journey to becoming an artist?
I still remember how painful it was to walk down the street with my family as a child and see my neighbors turn away. No one was willing to talk to us in public. My father was a political prisoner, an activist and “public enemy” of the dictatorship that then ruled Tunisia. My family was under strict police surveillance.
Ten year-old me, lonely and missing my father, looked for other ways to fill my time. What I found was my father’s trove of 400-year-old religious texts, inherited from an ancestor who had been a renowned scholar of Islam. The books were written in an old form of North African calligraphy known as Maghrebi script. “It’s an art form that speaks to your soul, even if you don’t understand the message,”. I saw the effort of these people spending so much time, writing a thousand pages by hand. I saw the long nights; I saw my father, his smile. Before long, I was obsessed, copying what I saw in the books over and over until the arcs and lines settled into my muscles. That obsession only grew once I left my hometown of Kasserine to go to boarding school, and my new skill attracted friends—the one thing I’ve never had.
Today I’m 44, a full-time artist based in Canada and the U.S., using murals, graffiti, and specialized technology to bring traditional Arabic calligraphy to an international audience. I worry that a craft that prizes meditative concentration and lengthy training will be lost in an era so focused on agility and speed.
My work, I hope, can serve as a kind of bridge, “a link between conservative traditional calligraphy and our augmented reality.
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?
The traditional calligraphy is very strict and regulated by a number of rules that makes it out of reach to the majority of the young generations.
“You can be a beautiful, amazing, well-known, traditional calligraphy artist, but your art isn’t speaking to the younger generations”. Refusing to try new things or embrace new technology leaves young people out, and puts the entire tradition at risk. "'Your art is dying with you,’ I said to them. I have nothing but respect for you, but I’m taking calligraphy to the streets.
How has the artistic freedom of street culture, and creating street art influenced your practice?
The streets gave me the chance to reach everyone and the opportunity to democratize my art so it’s available for the eye that sees the beauty and the heart that absorbs the message.
How did you create such an identifiable unique artistic style?
Years of hard work and the constant quest to be different in a very competitive world. Sourcing my inspiration from the ancient books I kept copying as a child and also an incessant drive to always be ahead. I wanted people to recognize my work without even looking at my signature. I wanted a style that speaks to everyone all over the world, some sort of a universal message.
How do you relate your work to both local and global audiences?
My letters convey a hidden beauty, because we all love to look at lettering , we’re all curious to read a written text. Since I’m using a very old calligraphy style that I reshaped throughout the years, I guess people look at it like a piece of history or an old manuscript.
Can art promote social change and provide a scope for dialogue?
Since day one I said my art art is to create dialogue and build bridges and my very first mural I did back in 2010 it reads : calligraphy a bridge between civilizations.
Does your audience need to understand Arabic when they view your work?
My work is appreciated worldwide and honestly I feel like non arabs have a deeper appreciation for my murals.
What emotions do you hope your work conveys and what impact do you hope it has on the viewer?
I strongly believe that if you don’t know your history, no one will respect you,How can you explain to someone who you are, where you come from, if you don’t know that?”
Calligraphy has taught him that we are the sum of all the knowledge our ancestors transmitted to one another. That’s how the art of calligraphy has been passed down—from master to student, who then becomes the next master—and also what calligraphy was for: recording history and wisdom to be shared with the next generation.
Can you describe your creative process, and give us some insight into what goes through your head, from concept to creation?
I source my inspiration in the history books and in hidden knowledge, I look always beyond the indoctrination and the brain washing of the masses. I transmit a deep message through my work and it’s there to be seen by those who have the ability to see. So it always starts with an idea, a thought and it lives inside of my head until I get the ability to mirror it on an artwork.
Who are your favourite artists?
Ai Weiwei, Ahmad Angawi, Rustam Qbic, Add Fuel
What has been your most challenging project?
Painting the longest mural in Tunisia back in 2013 on the walls of the prison where my dad spent several years. It took me and an entire team 45 days to finish the 240m mural.
How has your creative vision and art influenced Arabic typography more widely?
I saw the beginning of an entire art movement in the Arab world called calligraffiti and an entire new generation emerged full of creativity and looking for inspiration everywhere. I taught hundreds of workshops worldwide and my work is available online for more than 15 years now. I have been all over the news and even phd thesis were written on my light calligraphy art. I do art to please me first and if I’m inspiring others that’s a blessing from Allah that I get to enjoy on a daily basis.
During the Arab Spring, I saw the birth of a new movement in Tunisia, the revolution sparked a renewed interest in “calligraffiti,” which melds traditional calligraphy with a more modern, street-smart “graffiti” style. These are people who are proud of their language. They know what it means to them, as part of their history and heritage, and they’re using it
What does a typical day in the studio look like for you, and how has your art practice grown or changed?
It’s continuous experimentation with different mediums because working on installations is what I enjoy doing lately so it takes a lot of trial and error to achieve what is pleasing to me.
I work on new light art concepts, sculptures, paintings, performances and many other things.
Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic art tradition?
My entire work is based and issued from the Islamic art tradition
What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art, do you think it has a place in mainstream spaces?
I hope that my work will inspire the traditionalists to try out something new and the modernists to remember the value of tradition, reminding them what writing can be: a form of escape, an adventure in memory. “It’s beautiful to evolve, but if you lose the connection with your roots, you get lost.
For more information check out:
My website is www.Karimjabbari.com
Instagram : Karim_jab
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