Wissam Shawkat’s ‘Letters of Love II’ at Mestaria Gallery pushes boundaries - GulfToday

Wissam Shawkat’s ‘Letters of Love II’ at Mestaria Gallery pushes boundaries


Wissam Shawkat produces contemporary aesthetic from traditional calligraphy.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Internationally renowned and Dubai based artist Wissam Shawkat has launched “Letters of Love II” at Mestaria Gallery, Alserkal. To run till November 30, it was inaugurated on November 11. For the importance of this date to Shawkat, read on. 11 years on from his hugely successful exhibition, “Letters of Love” in New York, comes the second edition: “Letters of Love II”. The collection is made up of 50 original artworks centering around the key theme of love. Shawkat’s research and artistic journey can be summed up in two words — “letters” and “love” — and both are at the very heart of his work.

The launch date holds huge personal significance to the artist since he left his home in Basra, Iraq (where his artistic journey began), on 11/11. “Letters of Love” in New York also took place 11 years ago.

Shawkat is considered regionally and internationally as a leading authority on Arabic calligraphy and yet is largely self-taught, attaining mastery through book research, keeping the company of various masters, visiting museums and utilising library collections throughout the region.


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His technique or style — “Calligraforms” — which he pioneered himself, leans away from traditional practices and focuses on the forms of the script instead, portraying modern symbolism and highlighting its beauty and multiple angles. The result is indeed spectacular and differ greatly from piece to piece.

“Letters of Love II” is a far cry from the cliched calligraphy one mostly encounters. Pushing traditional boundaries, the current collection includes abstract and Cubist pieces. It is colourful, full of poetry, symbolism and most importantly, love.

It was the form of four letters of the Arabic alphabet written across a school blackboard that started Shawkat on a journey that shaped him both in early years and adulthood. He was first introduced to Arabic calligraphy by his primary school teacher, Muhammad Ridha Suhail. Shawkat recalls finding peace and patience writing and repeating calligraphic letters on the dusty tiles of a makeshift shelter during a heavy aerial bombardment during the Iraq-Iran war and, spurred on by supportive parents, he became his own tutor in the rigorous medium of calligraphy.

Wissam Shawkat’s style leans away from traditional calligraphy practices.

His teen summers were spent lettering for a local sign shop before he began studying for a degree in Civil Engineering at Basra University, graduating 1996. The life as a civil engineer, though, was not his destiny and the point where his affinity for letterforms would wait no longer, quickly came. It has been said that Shawkat is a rule-breaker. A modest individual, though the loaded label is not something he will freely apply himself, he goes about making new work employing traditional tools and materials - to produce a contemporary aesthetic.

There is purpose in the liberating juxtaposition of using handmade paper reed pens and traditional inks to create works that make us think again about what Arabic calligraphy is and can be – evolving into a Calligraform.

Shawkat has become known for this new calligraphic style, “Al Wissam”, which references a number of traditional scripts, including Sunbuli, Jali Diwani, Eastern Kufic and Thuluth, brought together with modern design.

He explains his transition from traditional calligraphy to abstract art: “I am a calligrapher turned conceptually motivated artist. How does someone self-trained in the most rigid, rule-based medium break out into abstraction?

“Now, more than 30 years into my calligraphy practice, I dutifully studied traditional scripts, compositions, and forms, until at last I felt qualified to judge which principles could be overridden and unbound, and which were to remain. “Before calligraphy was canonised as a form, it was once considered revolutionary and experimental. My practice is an effort to take it back to that disorienting place that teeters on the edge of what is known and what is unfamiliar.

“I am moved as much by old Turkish masters as I am by the Bauhaus, Geometric Abstraction, Futurism, Cubism, and Cecil Touchon’s collages.” Therefore, although it may have initially come by meditating upon a letter, the ultimate shape of a Calligraform is a monumental arrangement that is not exclusively anchored in the Arab world.

He is drawn to the graphic value of Arabic letters well beyond their literal meanings and Calligraform not only focuses on the precise forms of the letters, but also the abstract shapes generated by examining the geometric spaces inside and outside of their structures. He has received numerous prizes for his calligraphy and has participated as both an artist and committee member at multiple editions of the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial and the Dubai International Calligraphy Exhibition. “Letters of Love”, his solo exhibition at Reed Space in New York, introduced a global audience to a series of contemporary compositions.

In Dubai, he is engaged full-time as an artist, designer and Arabic typographer. His work is regularly featured in books on Arabic calligraphy and typography, included in museum exhibitions and acquired by private collectors.

Mestaria Gallery is a contemporary, affordable, and as they would have it, a “non-intimidating” art space located in the heart of Alserkal Avenue Art District in Al Quoz, Dubai. Established as a gallery space in the 1990’s, it specialises in works from accomplished regional and global talent, with a specific focus on work of an Arabic, African and Asian origin.




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