Redefining Calligraphy, Hatem Arafa

For artist and calligrapher Hatem Arafa, Arabic calligraphy is a kind of addiction, and practicing the ways of drawing each letter gives him unprecedented enjoyment and satisfaction.


We talk to Hatem about finding his niche in calligraphy, finding inspiration and creating a unique visual style.


What is your background and how did your creative journey began?


I started in the field of art since 2005, I found myself as a new student in a faculty that I didn’t like at all (faculty of commerce) and I wasn’t sure if that field was suitable for me and my future. I had a lot of different creative hobbies back then and calligraphy was just one of them. I wanted to start searching for the career that would suit me, and at the time I connected most with graphic design. I started working as a graphic designer, which lead me to learn more about photography and calligraphy, providing opportunities to use my photos and my handwriting in my designs.



It wasn’t until 2011 I considered myself as a calligrapher. Even when I started learning it the artform I thought it was just a tool that could help my graphic design practice, mainly for printing and advertising purposes. I eventually found myself obsessed with Arabic Calligraphy and Islamic traditional arts in general, I started to focus on developing my practice, and in the year 2012, I started teaching calligraphy for beginners in Alexandria and Cairo and other cities in Egypt.



In 2014 I moved to Turkey, where I started to study Turkish and Islamic traditional arts in a higher level academically, and later I added the architecture restoration to my studies as an extra major. I should graduate from the faculty of Islamic Traditional Arts this year Insha’Allah! It was a long way to both study and work at the field that I really wanted, but it paid off Alhamdulillah!



Where do you find inspiration for your work?


Usually in Arabic Calligraphy, one can find inspiration in the written sentences itself, whether literature or a song or a sacred text from Qur’an or Hadith, the meaning of the words gives me the desire to write it in a unique shape, to express its worth in my opinion. Sometimes the shape and origin of the letters with all the rules and the options that the calligrapher has with regards to each type of font, that leads to make a new composition using shapes, or break a rule somewhere to make something new. The hidden music in the letters tries to express itself through the hands of the calligrapher most of the time.



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?


Thanks, as I explained before, I started in this field as a graphic designer, and that made me in the beginning more interested in the modern style more than traditional techniques, I wanted to break the rules even before learning how to make the rule! That was a little strange start but it made my artworks different than usual from the beginning,



I always felt that there was something lost, and I found that every time I go deeper in learning a rule and mastering it, it makes me break it later. I work with more confidence, and have more control on the end result. I focused on learning the traditional rules very well so I could make both calligraphy styles (modern & traditional) when I want, or as the idea of the design need to be produced. I try to use everything I learn, to mix it with the calligraphy art when I need. The vector artwork suits it most because of the abstract nature of it, and sometimes I use my experience in photography as well, and drawing and decorative patterns along with the calligraphy art.





How do you utilize color, shape and pattern in your paintings?


In choosing colors I depend on the colors in nature most of time, I get inspired a lot by documentaries about natural life, and find inspiration for colour schemes colors that can be used. There are many schools in traditional art that use pattern and shapes in unique ways like Persian, Ottoman, Mamluk, Umayyad, Baroque for example, and studying these styles is so helpful for that purpose.



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 artform?


Actually, this description is applied on the nature of the Arabic calligraphy itself, to explain it we need to remember that the most types of ancient writing was dependant on pictures or drawings, like Chinese, Hieroglyphics and many other writing systems, it was pictorial, and until it was decoded it became letters as we see now. Most of those letters are abstract ways to explain a figure in nature, that’s why in most languages you could easily imagine letters looks like a man or a tree or a sun or a hand or a bird etc. But the Arabic language had the unique chance to be the one which is responsible to deliver the sacred message of the Qur’an and Hadith, and the whole of Islamic knowledge is connected to that. The first Arab calligraphers really cared and were interested in developing Arabic calligraphy to be so beautiful, organized, clear and unique for more than 1400 years! In a language that is still used and the people who still speaking it are growing in population, and the calligraphers who working on it never stopped this endless process! So, you could imagine how much effort has been done to beautify Arabic calligraphy, and I’m just one of thousands of calligraphers who try to understand the basics, and create works in my point of view, but that can also communicate with any other culture.



How has your work shifted and evolved over time?


I’m trying to widen my knowledge and techniques to meet more people's needs in the future, In addition to that I became faster in finishing my artworks and the amount of them have expanded. I was recently married, just over a year ago, and my wife - the artist Nour Alhuda - is also interested in Islamic art and is helping me and inspiring me to finish my artworks faster and organize my work better, improving marketing it also. Nour is helping me finding new ideas to work on, so, it’s my chance here to thank her for the atmosphere she’s making in our home.



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

I think that my experience is not yet effective enough to say that it influenced the field itself, but I could say that the huge number of workshops that I have conducted for beginners to learn Arabic calligraphy and also the many designs I made and published, attracts many people to love and interact with this art more and more. It may inspire some of them to search in themselves and to push everyone to make their own unique style and not be a copy of someone else!



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


I think the typical pattern for me to work is I never had a typical style or system for me to attach with. Every design has its own story, sometimes I couldn’t sleep before I finish an idea that just knocked on my head, and it may end to be a bad idea and I don’t continue it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning knowing what I should do with completing a commission, but usually every design starts with sketches and I may repeat one sketch 4 or 5 times till I feel satisfied about it. Practicing is the key to improving my style, and it’s an endless process, it just changes when I work on a style I didn’t use before, so I add it to my list of skills.




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


Most of my traditional artworks inspired by the Islamic art traditions, and sometimes I’m aware of that when I’m inspired by a piece of work I liked and I want to recreate something with its spirit. Sometimes I’m effected by it in somewhere in my head, the sense of the composition or the way to use colors or the school of decoration that I’ll apply to it, all of that may come from somewhere in my head where I stock more and more ideas every time I learn or explore these kinds of art.



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


I think people can’t live without art in general, that’s what make us more than just creatures, and makes us humans. Islamic art is one of the most unique kinds of arts which stands on a solid base, and it had many details and hidden messages that are not yet explained enough yet. I think other civilizations will keep longing to know more about this culture, and the communications between the different civilizations will make the calligraphy artists grow their skills and try harder to produce it in new ways all the time.


Islamic art is connected to many levels in our life, from the simple writing that you write in a wedding invitation, to the huge decoration or architecture design applied on a massive building you enter, you connect to people through it, and you document the important information and memories using it, so it’s usable on many levels, and that’s what I love about calligraphy, and what I hope to see always, a huge number of beautiful details everywhere!


For more information check out https://www.instagram.com/hatem_arafa/?hl=en


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