Arabic calligraphy and visual art
by Hassan Massoudy

The best way to address Arabic calligraphy in the field of contemporary art would, perhaps, be to consider it through the lens of my own personal experience, because I consider myself to be a visual artist and not a critic. As the Japanese saying goes: ‘Calligraphy is the man himself’, meaning that each calligrapher has a unique experience reflecting his own particular artistic path.

Since my childhood, I have always been surrounded by Arabic calligraphy decorating the walls of architectural monuments, mosques, graveyards, religious schools and libraries in the city of Najaf in Iraq. I also discovered calligraphy through my uncle who was an orator, a writer and an amateur calligrapher as I watched him drawing calligraphic scripts with his qalam and black ink ever since I was five years old. At the age of ten, my calligraphies attracted the attention of my primary school teacher. Inspired by his warm encouragement, I participated in calligraphy exhibitions throughout the course of my continuing education, from primary to middle school. Moreover, whilst still relatively young, I designed a series of advertising posters for various shops in Najaf. In 1961, at the end of middle school, I moved to Baghdad and began to work with other calligraphers who taught me some aspects of calligraphic style and technique. At the same time, I also pursued a more commercial path of development related to advertising, whilst all the time being moved by a deep desire to express myself somehow through art, and constantly dreaming about studying in Paris.

After working as a calligrapher in Baghdad for eight years, I had the opportunity to travel to Paris, in 1969, where I entered the School of Fine Arts (L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts). Following my eight years of experience working as a calligrapher in Baghdad and my five years of studying the visual arts in Paris, I still felt, in 1975, that I was neither a complete calligrapher, in the traditional sense of the term, nor a visual artist with sufficiently wide-ranging skills at the level of the diploma I had been granted. In fact, the calligraphy I learned in Baghdad no longer satisfied me, nor did the oil painting style I had been taught at the Beaux-Arts. So I started asking myself: ‘What are my options? Where should I go?’ And then an African proverb came to my mind: ‘When you don’t know where to go, remember where you come from.’ So I resumed learning Arabic calligraphy all over again.

What is Arabic calligraphy? Where does it come from? How did it evolve in the last thousand years?

I spent six years analysing all the documents I came across in libraries, museums or on the walls of monuments. Later still, I sought out the greatest living calligraphers, namely Hamed Al-Amadi in Istanbul and a group of calligraphers in Cairo, questioning them closely about matters I knew that I still didn’t fully comprehend.

The historical culture and the visual arts knowledge I had acquired at the Beaux-Arts allowed me to appreciate classical Arabic calligraphy from an entirely new perspective, considering the finest particularities of this art. I was able to summarize these six years of intensive research in a book entitled Living Arabic Calligraphy – first published in Paris in 1981, by Flammarion, which traces the technical, visual and social aspects of calligraphy, in both Arabic and French, using selected sequences of images and inscriptions.

Around this time, at the beginning of the 1980, I left oil and canvas in favour of ink and paper, driven by a mysterious and deep-rooted desire. I now feel that paper and ink have mostly been used in the oriental arts, whereas oil and canvas were, for centuries, the distinctive media of western art. Furthermore, coloured material plays a psychological role: water-colours differ from colours obtained using oil, and paper that absorbs some of the ink differs from canvas covered with resin which prevents the absorption of colours.

At that same time, I also decided to work on abstract compositions based on the shapes of Arabic letters. But after a while, I became disillusioned with this path, as I was continuously producing similar forms and dealing with the same questions and solutions from a visual point of view. Words, however, have the capacity to impose shapes I hadn’t considered, through their meaning. Fire, for instance, naturally moves upwards, automatically suggesting a composition in the vertical plane, while water embraces the horizontal plane with its tendency to flow downwards.

The necessity of drawing calligraphic scripts based on texts, arose from this idea. But what statements should I then select? Knowing that this content should necessarily be broken down and rebuilt, I thought to choose literary texts that were at least capable of enduring this process. This is how Arabic poetry became more appropriate in the course of my artistic practice. On the one hand, poets would enrich me with their images, insights and feelings; and at the same time, poetry provides for a freedom of visual expression, illustrated by its ability to deconstruct words as well as the possibility of restructuring them. Poets also manipulate words in their own creative manner.

There is a major aspect of poetry that is also present in calligraphy. A poet doesn’t disclose all the words and meanings, inviting the listener to become involved in the poetic images and perhaps even to interpret them differently. This helps the reader, listener or viewer to include his own desires and express his more intimate feelings; thus the words of the poet merge with the listener’s unique insights garnered from personal experience.

Similarly, words also provide an opportunity for the reader to create his own imagery. This is of paramount importance for humans. In fact, the human brain needs to liberate its images and ideas every day, and poetry, like other artistic endeavours, allows for the expression of feelings. One can imagine oneself as a poet, whenever reading or listening to poetry. Calligraphy enjoys the same expressive abilities as poetry, and all arts can be interrelated in this fashion, each one paving the way for the other. The intersections between poetry and calligraphy thereby serve to enhance the visually expressive capabilities of the latter art.

I approach the work of a poet with the hope that their metaphors will enrich my visual artwork. This is why I am always seeking different environments, and like any artist, I am on the lookout for new inspiration, always hoping that my images will join with those of the poets, opening the way to new approaches. It pleases me to put my visual images next to their hypothetical descriptions.

Between 1972 and 1985, I participated in live performances with the French actor Guy Jacquet and the musician Fawzi Al-Aiedy. The actor recited poems in Arabic and French accompanied by the musician who played music and chanted the same poetic passages, while I created calligraphic scripts that were projected behind us onto a cinema screen. The spontaneity of this artwork proved immediately successful and further encouraged us to show continuous ingenuity and creativity.

Creating calligraphy in front of the watchful eyes of spectators and under different emotional states generated new challenges every time. The spotlight directed towards us, so that the public could see us from the dark recesses of the hall, was more like a burning sun for the eyes, and I had to face unexpected events with both physical and mental skills whenever I would draw my scripts. In the midst of these struggles, crucial and unforeseen moments of great intensity would emerge from the vital fusion of these various arts.

After this experience of some twelve years, during which we staged dozens of cultural performances, I started introducing novel approaches into my calligraphy.

I tried to provide classical Arabic calligraphy with a new form of articulation that was equivalent to theatrical or musical expression. Every week, I would isolate myself for hours in my workshop composing scripts on paper. I gradually began to notice the extent to which my calligraphies became influenced by my performances on stage, and I allowed these effects to become assimilated into my work. Little by little, larger letters formed, and dancing, modern strokes fashioned my writings to become an integral whole. However, these modernist strokes were always accompanied by ancient Kufic calligraphy, in tribute to the first Arabic script whose roots were similar to drawing. Today, this ancient precursor is represented by the horizontal line written beneath each flourish of scripts, rising like a colossal statue in the middle of the desert.

My modern scripts are thus clearly related to classical Arabic calligraphy, born as they were, from my long experience with calligraphers, though they also differ from it. After many years living abroad in another culture, if the person must certainly change, then so must his calligraphy also, which is but a reflection of the calligrapher’s life.

If we examine thoroughly all ancient calligraphy, we must notice that, in each century, Arabic calligraphy was marked by different variations and innovations. Likewise it also bears the unexpected influences of particular geographical areas. For example, one wonders whether the ancient Kufic calligrapher could accept the change introduced by other professionals working with bricks, referred to as ‘architectural Kufic calligraphy’?

I am certainly not advocating that all calligraphers should abandon traditional scripts in order to follow modern trends. I simply note that Arabic calligraphy needs to embrace various artistic movements. I often return to contemplate the heritage left to us by such celebrated calligraphers as Al-Amasi, Al-Hafiz Osman, Rakim and Hashem. I also value the new initiatives made by contemporary calligraphers in relation to classical calligraphy, when I encounter them in some Arab and Islamic countries.

I would also like to mention one of the poets who has influenced my calligraphy, namely Mansur Al-Hallaj (10th century) who creates with few words a musical composition filled with deep emotions. His unique poetic style overflowing with strong imagery is built on symmetrical structures. His marvellous verses enchant the ears as he says:

‘Her soul is mine and my soul is hers, Her wishes are mine and my wishes are hers.’

His words, reflecting each other as though in a mirror, have inspired many calligraphers in the past and opened the path to a new calligraphic style which appears in the artwork ornamenting the Great Mosque of Bursa, in Turkey. However, the limpid stillness in the symmetry of his poems hides intense emotions and inclinations from within, which could have dangerous consequences for poetic calligraphy, like a boat caught in a sudden storm:

‘I float on oceans of passion, tossed about by waves, Lifted up by moments and then falling back,broken as I sink.’

Such a metaphor can’t be written in calligraphy independently of its author’s own feelings and spirit. Such a statement – what the heart reveals leads to knowledge – especially in this poem, embodies a simple meaning and rhythm. This kind of verse resembles calligraphy in its musical cadence and its overarching structure.

The birth of new calligraphic scripts is in no way an easy matter, as the calligrapher needs to rebel against ancient calligraphic standards, breaking from them, before finally reconciling with them. At times, I feel that I am directly aligned with ancient calligraphy, at other times I feel totally opposed to it. I’m aware of the necessity of drawing inspiration from the heritage of ancient calligraphers, but at the same time I continually strive to explore the life that surrounds us, our role in the universe as well as our cultural responsibility towards society and humanity. The Chinese philosopher Confucius says of this matter: ‘One who doesn’t progress each day, falls behind each day. Setting up calligraphy instruments is of paramount importance. The ancient calligrapher used to prepare his pens and ink meticulously. For example, the qalam is thin compared to the size of my work, so I have created other instruments which enable me to draw strokes at the required width, with immediacy of execution. In 1978, I watched more than a hundred Japanese calligraphers producing calligraphies in public at the Sorbonne in Paris. I saw them spread large papers on the floor and create swift, dancing strokes at lightning speeds with huge brushes that are similar in shape to large brooms. Since then, I have also tried to produce large calligraphic scripts as rapidly as possible, and as such, have created instruments capable of elaborating strokes in a single movement at the required width. While ancient Arabic calligraphy was composed using pens made of reed, all the large-scale calligraphies decorating the walls were produced and filled with delicate brushes. The largest instrument I have designed so far is 50 centimetres wide, whilst the largest paper on which I have drawn my calligraphies on the floor measured 3 x 5 metres.

Watching those Japanese calligraphers bore fruit several years later. The techniques of Japanese calligraphy added something new to the Arabic. However, the outcome of my work wasn’t related to the Japanese style at all. It was rather a modern Arabic calligraphy. The Japanese calligraphy has simply inspired me to draw large and quick strokes, giving full expression to feelings that were already inside me.

I produce most of my scripts with instruments made of thick cardboard or brushes, instruments similar to the tip of the common qalam used in the past, but up to ten times larger. I dip the instrument in colours, then pull it across the surface to draw letters that recall Arabic calligraphy in the manner in which the instrument renders curves on the paper. Some of these letters are analogous in shape to ancient letters, others have undergone changes. However, all of them have thick or thin shapes in accordance with the rules of classical Arabic calligraphy. I also keep in mind the preservation of the essence of Arabic calligraphy, conveying it visually through my artwork. I aim to improve and revive Arabic letters in the way change occurred throughout the long history of classical Arabic calligraphy; striving to open up new horizons in harmony with contemporary life, as, for instance, when I introduced calligraphy into the world of theatrical performance. I want my scripts to derive from classical Arabic calligraphy, yet retain their own specific characteristics. I also give great importance to the spaces in Arabic calligraphy; in other words, the empty areas bordering the letters. I imagine the calligraphic structure as a lonely tree standing in the centre of the desert, surrounded by boundless space.

We have all inherited many valuable aesthetic aspects from classical Arabic calligraphy, such as its elegant character, round shapes and linked letters which give the words the appearance of a perfect body enhanced by the measured proportions of length and width. In doing so, each calligrapher relies on his personal intuition, taste and culture. In modern calligraphy, we can benefit from this great legacy and can include such specificities of modern life as more recent information, and new cultural and scientific discoveries in the field of space. I attach special importance to the space behind calligraphies and imagine my calligraphic structures as statues rising into the sky, resisting both atmospheric pressure and the downward pull of the earth’s gravity.

Through the daily act of creating lasting calligraphy, my sole objective is to recreate myself over and over again. Every attempt to improve, conceals a challenge to the improvement itself. Consequently, the architectural structure must stand firm, with no risk of falling. If I am unable to achieve this balance in the calligraphy of the upper word, then I have failed; meaning that I must begin the entire process again. However, in this process, my own limitations as a person and my lack of inner balance on that particular day are brought to light. The experience of creating calligraphy thus leads me towards self-awareness, and might it not signal some form of improvement, if, whenever I stumble, I am able to rise again, to achieve more calligraphies?

Visual contradictions reflect those that are inherent in life itself and in our own lives as human beings. All these efforts reveal the desire to progress. No one can evolve without falling down once in a while. This should not be seen as failure. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down, as Socrates said. Calligraphy helps to control the body’s energy and channel it towards precise movement. When words are soaring, elevated and light, one might fly along with them. Sometimes, perhaps for several moments at a time, the calligrapher becomes the master of himself.

However, with every new calligraphic attempt, the calligrapher must take a different direction, choosing a slow and deliberate pace instead of quick movements, for instance. And yet, swiftness remains my main concern because it is connected to modernity and expresses an inner enthusiasm. It allows the feelings to outpace the mind and temporarily ignore it. Similarly, in contemporary music and modern dance, when the dancer leaps high into the air, I feel as if he is using his entire body to draw calligraphic abstractions in space. Yet how could one fly freely without ever falling down?

How do birds fly? One needs enormous capacities both to overcome gravity and to unleash the physical sensations that accomplish calligraphy with great speed. I want my scripts to express the unity of their bond with the 21st century, a century whose soaring pace of development has placed man upon the moon.

Hassan Massoudy, 2013.
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