x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

US sees modern interpretation of one of Islam's highest art forms

Calligraphy exhibition in New York showcases work of renowned Dubai resident Wissam Shawkat.

Wissam Shawkat, a Dubai-based calligrapher, is the subject of an exhibition in New York called Letters of Love.
Wissam Shawkat, a Dubai-based calligrapher, is the subject of an exhibition in New York called Letters of Love.

NEW YORK // Art connoisseurs in the Middle East and Asia have long collected Arabic calligraphy, one of the highest art forms in Islam that developed primarily to preserve the Quran.

Americans now have the chance to see a modern interpretation of the ancient form. The debut exhibition in New York of Wissam Shawkat opened at Reed Space in Manhattan last month. Instead of painting traditional Quranic expressions, Mr Shawkat, an Iraqi artist renowned among collectors, often uses Arabic translations of more modern quotations.

His exhibition, called Letters of Love, includes paintings of the words "Love is the only freedom in the world" by the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran or "A loving heart can handle the world" by Beethoven.

Mr Shawkat's journey to the US started in Basra, where he was born, and passed through Dubai, where he currently resides. His exhibition in New York was made possible by Jeff Ng, also known as jeffstaple, a design guru and gallery owner who has been called a "hustler of culture".

The unlikely pairing started when Mr Staple saw some of Mr Shawkat's calligraphy at the Holy Quran exhibition at the Farjam Collection Gallery at the Dubai International Finance Centre in 2009.

"I was simply blown away by the underworld art culture that exists on the fringes of major cities [in the Middle East]. Wissam Shawkat is a product of this cultural rise," said Mr Ng. "His work speaks to me on a soulful level. It reminds me of the fluidity and chaos-control of [graffiti] artists in NYC from the 80s."

Mr Shawkat, 36, first became intrigued by calligraphy when he was 10 years old and a teacher started drawing Arabic letters in chalk on the blackboard. "I was fascinated with the form the letters could take and that's when my passion started."

He completed a degree in civil engineering at Basra University but only lasted a month in the profession before pursuing his art. He achieved some success with exhibitions in Baghdad, but life under sanctions was hard and became more precarious as a US invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq became more inevitable. He left Iraq at the end of 2002 and moved to Dubai.

"There was no proper design school in Baghdad and I didn't have any knowledge of this field when I got there," he said. "But an art collector friend saw my work and helped me to get a job."

He worked for four years for a design agency and an international branding agency before striking out on his own. He now divides his time between his own fine art work, curating and judging international art exhibitions and doing design and logo work for clients, which include BP, the Emirate of Sharjah, Turquoise Branding, and Zabeel Investments in Dubai.

He said Dubai had proved to be a good environment for art. "Dubai has played a major role recently as a centre for Middle Eastern calligraphy along with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria," he said. "Most of the buyers are Middle Eastern collectors, but one of my works showing now in New York was actually bought by an American lady who lives in Dubai."

Modern interpretations of calligraphic traditions, such as his work, are proving more popular than older forms to the international market, he said.

"I'm actually Christian but my calling is associated with Islam and it has a universal quality," he said.

"My work is not classical because I'm interested in developing the form for the modern age, not just accepting what happened 100 years ago."

Nabil F Safwat, an Islamic calligraphy specialist, wrote in the programme to Mr Shawkat's New York exhibition: "In his recent works, we can clearly detect classical scripts such as Thulth, Kufic and Diwani, yet in his new forms and compositions he pushes ahead with his quest for achieving a stimulating transformation of the calligraphy of the Arabic letters."

Mr Shawkat and his wife are expecting a baby son in three months. He said he would continue to draw his inspiration from beauty. "It could be poetry, a chair or anything that pleases the eye," he said.