Z Gallery’s Hamza Abdulbasit: meet the artist using iPad art to teach society

Self-taught artist Hamza Abdulbasit explores traditional Arabic and Urdu scripts in his subversive iPad artworks. He delves into his mystifying portraits in an exclusive Q&A with Vision 

Hamza Abdulbasit is a global citizen. Pakistani-born, Canadian, and having resided in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Canada, and now, the UAE, the self-taught artist explores his mixed heritage and lifetime of travels in his latest exhibition at Z Gallery Dubai.

By exploring abstractions of Arabic and Urdu scripture, Abdulbasit’s work is contemporary in its bright, colourful and bold depictions of lettering, while also deeply traditional, always harking back to the rich cultural heritage of calligraphy. The result is a thought-provoking blend of old and new, which allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions about place and history.

By producing the work that is with both Eastern and Western audiences in mind, Abdulbasit’s focus is providing the world with a better understanding of Asian and Middle Eastern cultural tradition. As well as donating most of his profits to charity, the artist also plans to set up bursaries in universities in Canada, to aid fine art students interested in exploring Asian or Middle Eastern art and culture.

He speaks to Vision about how his own art explores the region’s rich heritage.

Talk me through the work that you’re currently exhibiting at Z Gallery in Dubai

My current work is hand-drawn digital art, which is a fancy way of saying it’s done on an iPad. I came to this particular series after playing around with a lot of different apps and software. I didn’t want something where you draw a box and it colours it in automatically. What I like about digital art is that you can still mix the colours with your hand, but you can use a stylus and do it on the iPad, adding textures and layering. These are all done by hand, in high resolution, but every little shade and shape is deliberate. They’re actually quite time-consuming.

What I like about it is that I can take it on the go. The digital medium opens a lot of doors, and is a lot more accessible to people who perhaps aren’t classically trained, or are, frankly, intimidated by walking into a paint store and seeing 50 types of acrylic and not knowing where to start.

[The exhibited works] are brightly coloured pieces, and each one is an homage to a letter or a shape in Arabic, or a city that I’ve spent time in or travelled through. What I’m trying to do is to use a colour palette which, to me, reflects the feeling of a city. There are certain cities where you spend a couple of days there and you just feel an energy from it.

Why did you choose to explore a single letter at a time?

That was deliberate, and for a number of reasons. If I can be very frank and humble, I’m not a classically trained calligrapher. There are many here in the Middle East who are producing work that is just beautiful. They have spent years and years practising and honing their skills, so firstly it’s out of respect for those people.

Also, there is already an established audience for [traditional calligraphy], and it is mainly in the Middle East. Because I come from Canada, I thought, “How do I represent where I come from to, perhaps, more of a Western audience, in a way that’s not intimidating?” By that I mean, if you’ve got a full sentence, or a scripture, or a poem, then it becomes hard for the person to understand that if they don’t speak Arabic or Urdu. They can’t read it, so it becomes either something that is a souvenir, or it’s about the aesthetics. What I’m trying to do is represent a letter or two at a time, often in the abstract variation, to really force the eye to focus on the colours around it.

From where do you draw your inspiration?

Through my travels, and the past. Going to a carpet bazaar or a souk and looking at the architecture of a city, and appreciating the work that’s gone into constructing a modern city or an old town.

Which other artists inspire you?

I’m not a classically trained artist, so my tastes are all over the place. I will say, having come to the UAE, the work that Hassan Sharif did here in his career – it blows you away. To do the work he was doing in the UAE when there was not really a burgeoning art scene, and certainly the kinds of work he was doing, was well ahead of its time. As I’m new here I’m still discovering Emirati artists – there’s no shortage of talent here.

How have you found exhibiting in the UAE compares to exhibiting in Canada?

The art scene in the UAE is quite booming, and things like Art Dubai really help. The focus on culture and heritage, and linking it to the creative industry is creating more of an awareness, and an appreciation for, art. I think there’s more openness to consider emerging artists than perhaps in some of the older, established galleries in Canada.

Dubai has recently been announced to be the first city to have its own Microsoft font. How does this speak to the rich history of Arabic scripture?

I think it’s great, and I can see that other cities will want to follow suit very quickly. It’s an innovative and fun thing to do, and I think it will set a trend.

Secondly they developed it in English and Arabic simultaneously. It reinforces [the UAE’s attitude] of being very proud of where you come from, but also acknowledging that you live in a bigger world, and paying homage to that as well. The UAE’s sentiment of “we are who we are, and we want you to come and experience it” is something we need more of in the world.

‘Abstract Calligraphy’ by Hamza Abdulbasit will run at Z Gallery Dubai until 30 June; www.virtualhamza.com