The Awareness of Beauty

In the Arab world, calligraphy has always been considered one of the noblest forms of art. Throughout the centuries, numerous new styles have emerged. All of them have kept on performing the true ‘function’ of any artistic endeavor: nurturing people’s awareness of beauty in life.

KL: What is calligraphy? And what has it got to offer us in the way of drawing, painting, street art and writing?

HM: Calligraphy is writing before being anything else; but the characters that are written are drawn in an artistic and expressive way and are different each time. There are many styles in Arabic calligraphy, and the letters in each style are drawn in a specific way. Every calligrapher adds something of himself to the characters he draws. The Kufi style suggests gravity and stability, while the Diwani style suggests flight. When one phrase is written by more than one calligrapher, using the same style, each version is different, since the spirit of the calligrapher comes through in the writing. Arabic script has numerous styles depending on whether it is used to produce books, to decorate walls, or to meet the needs of professionals, to say nothing of the innovations introduced to it by non-Arab peoples like the Iranians and the Turks. There are innovations related to geographic location, like the script used in al-Andalus and the western, Maghreb countries; there are the political scripts such as the one used for the Tughra, or Sultan’s signature, and there is the literary script like the one used for writing poetry. In the past, Turkish calligraphers produced large works that were several meters in size and were hung on walls. Calligraphy is often used in advertisements, in the cities. In the modern era, people use calligraphy to express themselves politically or artistically on street walls, often illegally. But some cities allow street art in deserted places where the walls need to be revived. It is impossible to list all the artistic benefits of calligraphy, but I can mention an important one and it concerns what children are taught when they first learn to write. They are made aware of sound geometric rules: the proportions of the letters, which means that they have to remember the shape of each letter and can therefore develop their knowledge, on the basis of a rich artistic legacy. It is necessary to maintain a balance between one character and another and to be aware of the relationship between the usual shape of the letters and the abstract void surrounding them.

KL: Images are forbidden on the walls of the city of Najaf, where you were born. How then did you begin to be interested in Arabic calligraphy? What did it inspire in you? And what sentiments did it arouse in you?


HM: Images were not encouraged, so they were replaced by Arabic calligraphy, which grew to match the architecture. Even though the houses in the city of Najaf were built of simple brick or mud and were surrounded by the dust-colored desert, the Grand Mosque and other landmarks such as the libraries, the cemeteries and the public baths, had walls that were always adorned with blue tiles and calligraphy. I used to walk the short distance from our home to the Grand Mosque, whose area is more than ten thousand square meters and which has minarets, a golden dome and blue walls like the waves of the sea.

The walls were decorated with verdant branches and roses in a garden, representing paradise. But what used to catch my eye was the calligraphy that filled the space at the top of the walls, even though I was a child and had not learnt to read. This abstract ambience spoke to my heart, and was the first joyful form to fill it. Over the years, I used to wonder why I was so moved by beautiful calligraphy.

KL: Can you describe your artwork and your calligraphy?

HM: In 1961, when I was seventeen, I travelled to Baghdad, capital of Iraq, and I started working as an assistant to a number of calligraphers. I learned how to write the different styles and all the relevant rules. Most of the calligraphy jobs involved writing advertisements, but inside of me, I felt the need to learn about the mystery of calligraphy, which roused a vibrant response in me and touched the core of my being. For eight years, I dreamed of studying art, but I could not do so at the Art Institute in Baghdad, at that time, for political reasons. In 1969, I had the chance to go to Paris to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and I was able to find a job that gave me just enough money to survive, as a student. I worked as a headline writer for an Algerian paper geared to expatriate workers. I spent five years studying art and art history, and practiced all the techniques that the school had to offer, finally obtaining a higher diploma. But once I had finished my art studies, I felt that calligraphy was insinuating itself into my art work. In 1980, calligraphy took the place of people in my paintings, and my work was filled with animated Arabic characters. At the beginning, it was not possible to use calligraphy in the way I had first learnt to use it. I spent years trying to shape the characters in a way that suited the new direction I was taking. One of the various trends I adopted was to produce a painting made up of letters that nevertheless suggested a desert scene. I used to write several lines of words, in horizontal fashion, suggesting land that extended to the horizon, and in the centre, I would write one word, standing tall in the open air, like a statue. The whole image reflected what I saw in my mind’s eye. Over the years, the idea became simpler, but each version was different from the previous one, from the point of view of the energy and movement involved. Each character was a reflection of the amount of strength I used at the very instant I was shaping each stroke. A word can be written so as to look solid and stable and it can be made to dance and to float and to undulate. Each color reflects a state or a season. I mix the colors  myself and I choose the appropriate paper or canvas. I always like to express beauty and optimism in my work. These days, we receive news from around the world at the speed of light. So I think we need art because it can perform a second function, that of nurturing people’s awareness of the beauty in life. When writing wise sayings and poetry, I used to choose positive phrases that encouraged meditation and reflection on exalted values and morals, in addition to providing aesthetic enjoyment through the calligraphy. But when I face difficult and harsh conditions, I find that I reflect the pain inside me in the way that I write. I have written phrases to go with stories and poetry and the calligraphy reflected the meaning of the words and enhanced the poetic and narrative atmosphere. More than twenty books have been published containing my calligraphic work in this field. What I want to explain is that calligraphy is an artistic medium which we can use as a cultural and educational tool, to develop people’s aesthetic awareness, for the good of humanity.

KL: How and why did you go beyond the traditional rules of Arabic calligraphy?

HM: Firstly, I felt that I could not use the old type of calligraphy that I had learnt in Paris. Secondly, I compared the various types of art in the world to calligraphy and I found that all art develops and changes. And Arabic calligraphy itself has changed in the past, in the course of each century. The exposure to the exchange of knowledge in Paris and my mixing with calligraphists from China and Japan, gave me the idea to speed up the writing without sacrificing its beauty. For thirty years, I worked with calligraphy on stage, with actors, musicians, singers and dancers. I used to write on a device that projected the calligraphy directly onto a big screen in front of the audience. That is how new calligraphy styles were born. But they stem from the old calligraphy.

KL: Can you describe one of your styles that has had a special effect on you, and why?

HM: In my forty years of working as an artist in Paris, I have produced many styles of writing. They all represent certain moments in my life and I cannot prefer one to the other.

KL: What do you want to express through calligraphy?

HM: I want to create a beautiful work of art that helps people who view it,on their journey through life.

KL: At a time when the Arab world is going through serious political changes, can calligraphy be affected by politics and what role can calligraphy play now?

HM: The Arab world’s problems stem from the way people forget the really beautiful things the ancients produced in this same region. That is why some people express themselves through racism, sectarianism and violence. As an art, calligraphy is linked to literature and it could contribute to building a humanistic, artistic culture in the future, on condition that it find its own artistic expression, without imitating political slogans, since every kind of social expression has its own language.




This interview, conducted in Arabic, was the cover story of Papers of DIalogue on February 17, 2014. It is available here.

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