x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Another language

Hamza Bounoua's paintings are marked by rich burnt reds and turquoise blues masked by dense squiggles of calligraphy, pictograms and cuneiform script.

Engraving makes Bounoua's characters and letters pop out at the viewer.
Engraving makes Bounoua's characters and letters pop out at the viewer.

Hamza Bounoua's paintings are marked by rich burnt reds and turquoise blues masked by dense squiggles of calligraphy, pictograms and cuneiform script. Though the writing is largely illegible, Bounoua's art nonetheless speaks to viewers with in a mature artistic language. The Algerian-born, Kuwait-based artist is currently exhibiting at both the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi and the Meem Gallery in Dubai. Though he works with script, it's not so much the words that interest Bounoua. It is the beauty of Arabic script and the evocative nature of symbols, whether they are letters, shapes or dense wiry mats of text.

Just don't tell him that he works with calligraphy. "My métier is not calligraphy; I say this because I have never been attracted to calligraphy, but I use writing in abstraction," he explains. "The things that interest me are my graphics and the Perspex." Bounoua is part of a long tradition of using script in contemporary Arab art. And though he's certainly not the first to work with text, his layering technique and use of Perspex as a medium make his work stand out. It is a unique process, which involves applying paint on Perspex - a surface the artist likes because of its durability and its similarity to glass. Bounoua paints on the Perspex from the back side, showing the slick-textured side of the material to his audience. Working from the inside out, Bounoua uses engraving to make his invented characters and letters pop out at the viewer from a background made of fields of colour and dense conglomerations of symbols.

At the opening, the exuberant artist in a slim-cut black suit struts between free-standing two metre tall pyramids, which look more like a poniard-style dagger than the Great Pyramids at Giza. He pauses occasionally to talk to local artists, journalists and a bevy of admirers. Bounoua is only 29 and candidly admits his status as the most important Algerian artist under the age of 60. He has reason to be proud: Bounoua was chosen for a solo show at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Algiers in 2007, when the city was serving as the Unesco Arab Capital of Culture and has been in dozens of shows since starting his career only seven years ago. He now lives in Kuwait City because of its proximity to all the places he wants to be: Europe, Asia and India are all close by.

Bounoua is happy to be at the crossroads. He is part of a generation which straddles the divides of religious and secular and sophisticated and folksy. He uses 20th century materials such as Perspex, yet he's in tune to the traditional, employing ancient cuneiform script and the simple, elegant shapes used in African masks. Faces, a group of five long rectangular paintings on thin slabs of Perspex, feature elongated heads that resemble the masks of the Fang people who inhabit Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Other pieces like Figures and Letters feature amassed bodies made up of letters reminiscent of the Arabic alphabet. The anthropomorphic shapes created by these letters are reminiscent of both tribal totems and stylised graffiti art, and the acrylic paints offer a gaseous fizzle or bubbling effect on parts of the once-smooth interior surface.

Although his imagery may be folk, his work is far from naive: Bounoua's brush strokes are confident and smooth - no double-backing or chicken scratch. The layering of the colour washes behind the calligraphic elements also shows the hand of a studied artist. Bounoua did indeed go to the Ecole Supérieur des Beaux Arts in Algiers and he credits his parents for putting him on the creative path at a very young age.

Bounoua's love of art was the result of a sheltered upbringing in the Kabylie region of Algeria. His parents' house faced a busy street. To keep him from running out into the street and getting hit by a car, his parents kept him inside and forbade him from playing football, something he is still wistful about. Inside of his home, he made his own imaginary world with art. To encourage him, Bounoua's father, who was the manager of a building site, encouraged his son to play with the materials and wall paints he brought home from the job. "My father would say, 'Come here, Hamza! Do something with this', because he knew that I loved colours," says the artist. His family continued to encourage his talent, which appears to have paid off quite well since the Ghaf Gallery show, organised by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, was extremely well-attended.

And Bounoua's work, though accessible, has a strong spiritual element. Triangle 3, for instance, features banners of black Arabesque calligraphic script on a grey background, while portholes of lavender and larger letters dot the front of the painting like buttons. These portholes offer up a view into another dimension, as if you were looking through the painting into a separate plane of moving images that are occurring simultaneously.

Made in the same dagger-like frame shape as the Pyramid series, Triangle 3 is rendered flat in two dimensional form. The isosceles triangle shape of the work is important to Bounoua, who says that the shape points to God's connection with man. The letters in works like Triangle 3 stream back and forth from the pinnacle to the base of the triangle to create a dialogue between the earth and the sky. Says Bounoua, "It's an inspiration and it's universal".

Overall, the work is visually pleasing and draws from many different traditions: building materials of the modern world, tribal masks of Africa and script reminiscent of both the Middle Eastern and the Asian traditions of penmanship. "My objective with my work is to speak to everyone in the world," says Bounoua, and he does, using his own special dialect - a kind of artistic Esperanto. swolff@thenational.ae