How Khawla Art And Culture is empowering Arabic calligraphy and 'the story of the region'

New exhibition at Abu Dhabi's Khawla Art and Culture, featuring works by orphaned and refugee children, underlines how much progress has been made in five years

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Calligraphy is an integral part of Arab culture, and yet it was difficult to find a local platform dedicated to teaching the art form until the launch in 2019 of a foundation in Abu Dhabi with grand plans.

Five years on, Khawla Art and Culture's mission to promote classic Arab art free of charge and provide it with international exposure is gathering momentum.

Its new exhibition in the capital, the result of collaborations with other institutions, demonstrates just how much progress has been made. Color Their Dreams, which opened on Wednesday and runs until June 14, features 120 different works from seven countries, including creations by orphaned children from Egypt, India, Iraq, Togo and refugee children from Jordan.

“We’re exhibiting 120 different works from seven countries,” says general manager Rayan Hakki. “Some of them are on canvas, some of them are on paper. It's a way to help them and motivate them to keep on working and to keep on doing art.

“We do a lot of charity work here as well, because everyone should get a chance to practise art. We want to show everyone that if they want to be an artist, they have a chance they can exhibit here; they can showcase here; they can give us their work. We can have a documentary on them.”

What a difference five years can make. Introductory courses into Arabic calligraphy were offered in certain spaces before 2019. However, for those looking for a more nuanced study of the craft, from building upon basics to pushing on the boundaries of the art form while delving into its history, options were few and far in between.

Her Highness Sheikha Khawla bint Ahmed Khalifa Al-Suwaidi saw this gap as she herself developed her practice. The wife of Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, National Security Adviser and Deputy Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikha Khawla has spent years developing her craft as a calligrapher, learning from some of the most esteemed practitioners in the world.

Over the past few years, she has become a renowned artist in her own right, celebrated for larger-than-life artworks that presents her poetry across various calligraphic styles.

Yet, as Sheikha Khawla honed her craft she saw the knowledge and insights she gained from certified calligraphy masters were largely inaccessible to the general public. Consequently, she set out to launch a foundation that would become a vehicle of promoting and teaching the classical Arab arts – free of charge.

Khawla Art and Culture was established with this edict in 2019. Located on Abu Dhabi’s Dalma Street, the centre features exhibition and workshop spaces, as well as a library and a museum dedicated to highlighting the history of Arabic calligraphy.

A special exhibition section is also dedicated to the works of Sheikha Khawla herself, showing her proficiency as a calligrapher across various scripts and artistic themes.

“It was an idea that Sheikha Khawla had when she started learning about Arabic calligraphy and Arabic art, realising that it was something that wasn’t very well highlighted or promoted in our region,” says Hakki.

While Arabic calligraphy was a focal point of the institution when it was first established, Khawla Art and Culture has since grown to accommodate various other classical Arabic art forms, from ornamentation, literature and grammar to music, paper making and sculpting.

“Sheikh Khawla founded [the institution] with seven different programmes that were relating purely on Arabic calligraphy,” Hakki explains. “With time, we started growing.”

“The idea was that Khawla Art and Culture [was dedicated] to promoting and enhancing Arabic calligraphy, then it became on Arabic art in general.”

At first, the time of the institution’s opening seemed inopportune. The world was reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdown and isolation measures made it impossible to schedule consisted classes, but the foundation adapted quickly, making it easier than ever for those curious about calligraphy to pick up the craft.

“We had a bit of a hard time establishing something at that time,” Hakki says. “The pandemic was the reason we shifted the courses online. It helped us to be there without actually being there at the start.”

Instructors are meticulously selected, Hakki says. One of the first was a certified practitioner who taught Sheikh Khawla herself: Mohammed Mandi. The Emirati developed his craft at Cairo’s Arabic Calligraphy Improvement School and went on to study under renowned Turkish calligrapher Hassan Chalabi.

Mandi’s calligraphy has adorned passports in the UAE, Oman and Kuwait, as well as on UAE, Syrian and Bahraini banknotes. His courses are available online, as entry-level classes in geometric square kufi and ruqaa scripts.

His involvement meant Khawla Art and Culture began by taking big strides. Several other notable instructors have since come to the academy, expanding the centre’s calligraphy courses.

The institution delves into specific of various calligraphy styles with both online and in-person courses, including Naskh, Ruqaa, Thuluth and Diwani scripts, as well as Geometrical and Mamluk Kufi scripts.

The academy has also branched out to include resin art, horse drawing and letter fragmentation. Japanese calligraphy is also part of the academy’s offerings and is aimed at highlighting diverse approaches to the art form.

Courses, Hakki says, are often curated according to student interests, and the institution regularly engages with the community to pinpoint how best to cater to their needs. “We posted on social media, asking what kind of Arabic calligraphy font people wanted to learn. We started with the basics.”

The institution then began offering courses in calligraphy styles that many people weren’t familiar with. The aim was to expand public knowledge on the richness of Arabic calligraphy.

As a result, between established practitioners and newcomers to the craft, a community of artists has blossomed around Khawla Art and Culture and is helping push calligraphy to new frontiers.

There are some 220 different scripts within the umbrella of Arabic calligraphy, Hakki points out. “We want to start introducing the new ones,” Hakki says. “When we opened, we thought there were 60 and this is what was usually shown in research. But we found there are 220.”

Several of these have emerged in the contemporary calligraphy landscape, and Hakki says Khawla Art and Culture has been dedicated to exploring contemporary styles, as they were the scripts that often “attracts the younger generation.”

“Classical and traditional funds didn't attract the young ones,” Hakki says. “It attracted mostly well established artists who wanted to learn different fonts, and elder people.

“It was a bit difficult to tell a person who’s 16 to come and learn Arabic calligraphy. So we introduced young artists [in our courses], from 20 to 35. They are modern artists who use calligraphy as a way of in design and in jewellery.”

By learning more contemporary styles, students became keen to eventually learn the history and trajectory of Arabic calligraphy, delving into some of the older styles.

Besides offering courses for free, Khawla Art and Culture also collaborates with several other institutions in its mission to make classical Arabic art forms easily accessible. Early on, it worked with the Ministry of Education so that its online courses were available to schools and universities.

Other institutions the centre has worked with include Abilities Development Centre For People of Determination, the Zayed Higher Organization for People of Determination and, most recently, the Emirates Red Crescent Authority.

The new Color Their Dreams exhibition now running at Khawla Art and Culture is the result of this latest collaboration. But Khawla Art and Culture also has a number of other auxiliaries, dedicated to different aspects of promoting classical Arab art.

The Khawla Art Gallery, located in Dubai Design District, is a platform that showcases established artists. The gallery is currently hosting a solo exhibition for Tunisian artist Abdallah Akar, with modern calligraphic works that honour Arab poets.

The Khawla Art Consultancy programme, meanwhile, is meant to offer guidance to artists and collectors alike. “It's purely mentorship, to tell them how to start and where to exhibit,” Hakki says.

“We tried to get artists to have collaborations with other entities, whether with universities, with museums with other galleries as well. While consulting our collectors, we stress on the importance of collecting Arab art. We help them connect with artists from the Arab world.”

Khawla Art and Culture’s mission is not limited to the UAE. The institutions regularly takes part in functions across the Arab world and abroad. It has held workshops, exhibitions and lectures in Lebanon, Egypt, Spain and is soon branching out to Italy and Japan. Hakki hopes to drive forward this international exposure.

“I want we want to see our artists in museums abroad,” she says. “To see our artists getting recognised around the world, being part of art fairs and in collectors’ houses. We want them to share their stories, because the story behind an artwork is the story of the artist. It's the story of the region and it should be heard everywhere.”

The Color Their Dreams exhibition at Khawla Art and Culture in Abu Dhabi runs daily, from 10am to 7pm, until June 14

Updated: May 27, 2024, 5:02 AM