Maryam Al Balooshi: the Emirati calligraphy artist who isn't afraid of colour

Her work is already well respected within the calligraphy community. Now, a new project with Van Cleef & Arpels is bringing it to a wider audience

The original artwork by Maryam Al Balooshi for 'Ramadan', in conjunction with Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels
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“Van Cleef & Arpels is all about the stories, so for me, it’s been a kind of transition from just being an artist that presents a few lines of words, to being an artist that presents stories,” explains Emirati calligrapher Maryam Al Balooshi.

She is speaking of her recent collaboration with the storied French jewellery house for which she created a series of three unique artworks for Ramadan.

“I was approached at the end of 2018 about this conversation between a calligrapher and a jewellery brand. It was a new experience, and I had to take it to learn and grow, so I accepted.”

Emirati calligrapher Maryam Al Balooshi. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels
Emirati calligrapher Maryam Al Balooshi. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Al Balooshi is an engineer and author, as well as a respected calligrapher, and is well known in the UAE for her unique style of using coloured inks.

Having been fascinated by calligraphy as a child, and a dedicated student throughout high school, Al Balooshi suddenly stopped in 2003. “I quit for six years. I didn’t do anything, not even hold a pen. I thought it was the end of that journey for me.

"But when something is inside you, it keeps knocking on the door, and when I went back to calligraphy, my teacher said that I needed to decide. Did I want to be just a normal calligrapher, or did I want to be a designer? I told him I want to be a designer.”

For those outside the world of lettering, the difference between the two is subtle, but critical.

Maryam Al Balooshi's original design for 'Eid Mubarak', with Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels
Maryam Al Balooshi's original design for 'Eid Mubarak', with Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

A calligrapher faithfully copies the work of others, emulating the style and technique. A designer, however, creates his or her own unique style, and finds their own visual "voice". That Al Balooshi had her sights set on being a designer elevated her into another realm. "It needs a lot of patience and work, you can't just do it all at once. It takes years.

“In calligraphy, we don’t mix the colours; it’s a one-stroke shot, and you need to be strong and confident to do it. When you look at the gradient [of colour] you can tell if the calligrapher is a strong person or not. That’s why people don’t like to use colour, it will show your weaknesses.”

Despite the difficultly of working exclusively in coloured inks (“I wear an abaya, I already know all about black,” she says, with a laugh), she is adamant this best expresses her work. Using tools called bamboos, dipped in ink, each letter is made using bold arcs, in merely one sweep. “Each tool needs practise before you can use it properly. I can do all the lettering in one day, but it takes months of finishing.”

That includes making sure each line is balanced and perfect, removing any excess with a small, but extremely sharp knife. For this, steady nerves and hand are required. “You have to be very relaxed, because you don’t touch the paper, you touch the ink,” she explains.

Of the finished artworks with Van Cleef & Arpels, Al Balooshi is happy with the results and is looking forward to sharing it with Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah.

“He is the father of calligraphy here, he built the museum of calligraphy, and the institute. He is a calligrapher himself, and I have been told he has a studio in his palace and he prepares his own ink. So he understands the work that goes into each piece. I can assure you I am not the best calligrapher in the UAE, but I am confident that I have my own way of designing,” she explains.

The story behind her Van Cleef & Arpels pieces ...

When the project with Van Cleef & Arpels began in earnest, Al Balooshi confesses to initially feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of teaming up with such a big international company.

In calligraphy, when you look at the gradient [of colour] you can tell if the calligrapher is a strong person or not. That's why people don't like to use colour, it will show your weaknesses

“It was scary in the beginning, but I knew that Van Cleef were perfectionists and cared about the details, so in this we shared a common ground. They began sharing with me stories about the jewellery and I started to connect to their minds. Art is not about the final pieces, but about the whole process – from the first idea to the final piece. It is a journey.

"Van Cleef & Arpels said it wanted to do something new for the region, and not the typical card of the Moon for Ramadan, and I said I was very happy to think about it differently, because Ramadan is not just about the Moon and the stars. I said ‘let's think about the meaning of the holy month, and the meanings and values.’

“I started to ask my friends about the values of Ramadan they love the most, while I learnt about the Van Cleef story. We found a lot of similarity in the values of love, friendship, kindness. When they think about their jewellery, they think about the feelings and the stories."

The work she has created for Van Cleef is three original art pieces, entitled Ramadan, Eid Mubarak and Flowers of Values.

Ramadan is a sweep of green, in cursive, flowing lines that carry the viewer on a journey around the page. Soft and enveloping, it is as inviting and encompassing as one would expect of a tribute to the holy month.

Eid Mubarak, meanwhile, is in earthen brown, held in two golden circles, stacked above each other. With the letters curling to fill the space, it feels warm and comforting. Underneath is a flourish of the same green.

The third artwork is perhaps the most intriguing, coming in the form of a stylised flower. Called the Flowers of Values, it was, Al Balooshi explains, the most challenging to create.

"Normally as an artist, I just lock myself in my studio, but to have a collaboration took a lot of talking to reach understanding and agreement. We had a lot of discussion and exchanges. We started with 38 values and ended up with 12. It took a long time to come to an agreement, because as an artist, I have to feel it, but it's about people getting together, to connect."

Maryam Al Balooshi's design for 'Flowers of Values' for Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels
Maryam Al Balooshi's design for 'Flowers of Values' for Van Cleef & Arpels. Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

Divided into couplets that read Love & Happiness, Togetherness & One Community, Caring & Family, Balance & Harmony, Giving & Kindness, Light & Positivity, a lot of work went into making sure this was absolutely the right wording.

“The difficult part was the Arabic wording,” Al Balooshi explains. “I had to translate it to English, but sometimes that didn’t reflect the ideas. So, understanding the two languages was a challenge, and to find words that were similar. In Arabic, words have different meanings, so we had to be very careful and that took a long time.”

With the wording finalised, it was then left to Al Balooshi to translate them into artwork.

"In calligraphy, especially in colours, it needs a lot of patience, detail and time invested in each piece. Working with colours is not easy. You need to keep the pattern, you need to keep the lines, and it's the same with jewellery. It's all about the same detail."