More than words: the art of calligraphy

As the art world increasingly shines a spotlight on instant art celebrities, Liz Totton contemplates art with meaning – even spirituality – that is made of far more than just words

Calligraphy’s evolution, from a tool for communication to a tool for artists, originated from the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam. Because artists couldn’t represent the human form, they abstracted the letter into a dominant symbol.  

While nowadays there are superstars in the world of calligraphy and ‘calligraffiti’, the majority of artists who practise the art of words get little to no recognition nor want any, such as those who practise art surreptitiously as an act of protest. They, as well as their more known counterparts, are deserving of a further look.

From traditionalists to street artists, Middle Eastern practitioners still turn to the letter – often, stretching its interpretation to the limits.

Bassam Al Selawi and Maysoon Masalha

Beautiful shadow sculptures made by husband and wife duo Bassam Al Selawi and Maysoon Masalha are crafted from resin to resemble a word or an image. The sculptures themselves are fascinating, but they come to life when a light is cast beneath them; the shadows created become the work of art.

Combining modern sculpture techniques with Arabic calligraphy, specifically Qur’anic verses, the words shown when a spotlight casts their shadow brings the piece to life.

eL Seed

Graffiti’s origins began with the use of letters. For some, letters are simply starting points for elaborate abstract patterns, while other street artists still focus on conveying different sociopolitical messages with them.

Calligraffiti artist eL Seed’s most recent and ambitious artwork, Perception, loosely represents a quote from Athanasius of Alexandria, a third-century Coptic bishop who said: “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.” It was painted across more than 50 buildings in the community of the Zarabeen (‘garbage people’) on the outskirts of Cairo. Known for processing the city’s rubbish, they are often maligned for their work, but eL Seed sees their task as noble – they recycle more than 80 per cent of Cairo’s waste.

Jamal Habroush Al Suwaidi

The Ajman-born artist also deals in the abstract – although his creations are metal sculptures inspired by his country’s landscape and Arabic calligraphy. He prefers working with bronze because of the metal’s historical importance. His interest in the word was triggered by seeing Robert Indiana’s iconic sculpture Love.

Fatima Saeed Al Baqali

Emirati calligrapher Fatima Saeed Al Baqali creates spectacular design and calligraphy masterpieces, which usually feature verses from the Qur’an. She continues her study in Sharjah, bettering her craft by learning Rekaa, Diwani, and Farsi (Persian) script fonts and incorporating them into her art.

From traditionalists to street artists, practitioners in the Middle East still turn to the letter for inspiration and stretch its interpretation to the very limits – from the traditional three-dimensional work of Al Selawi and Masalha, to the modern art of eL Seed. It is their abstract renderings of words that challenge our perception and remind us that not everything is what it seems.