Belgian artist feels need to spell it all out – in Arabic

In the third instalment of our summer series visiting artists in their studios, we shine the spotlight on Sarah Sillis, a Belgian artist who has mastered Arabic calligraphy

The Belgium-born artist Sarah Sillis in her home studio in the Al Reef area of Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Christopher Pike / The National
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The painting spells out the word hob, which means love in Arabic. The shape of the letter H begins the word and the corresponding swoop that leads into the letter B forms a heart before concluding at the dot, which in Arabic identifies the letter’s sound.

It is an artistic work that clearly bears the mark of a trained calligrapher. However, it may come as a surprise to the viewer to find out that the artist is not a native Arabic speaker. Sarah Sillis is from Belgium and, although she has lived in the UAE for more than 12 years, when she arrived, she didn’t know one word or letter of the language.

Now, however, from her studio at her Abu Dhabi home, she paints colourful calligraphic paintings for herself, her friends and private clients, as well as decorative pieces and abstract works without lettering.

“I’ve been painting all my life,” she says. “I started with pencil drawing, but I was very bad at traditional figures and animals and was drawn to abstracts or geometrical forms.”

After moving to Dubai in 2002 to work for Emirates, Sillis spent a lot of time in Sharjah exploring the art district.

It was then that she wandered into the atelier of Khalifa El Shimy, a well-known Egyptian artist who specialises in calligraphy and who works as a professional artist for the government of Sharjah.

“As soon as I saw his work, I thought it was amazing and so beautiful,” says Sillis.

El Shimy, noticing her passion and interest, offered to teach Sillis the basics of calligraphy.

She started visiting his studio and began learning the letters. For more than four years, she visited him weekly, sometimes several times a week, and would paint alongside El Shimy, who constantly guided and trained her.

“It was so much fun, I loved it,” she says. “It was thanks to him that I learnt all I know about calligraphy.”

In 2007, Sillis left the UAE and moved to Kuwait for a year; when she returned to Dubai, she made her first sale.

“I never even thought about selling my paintings because I was just doing them for fun, but one day one of my colleagues said he really liked three of my works and wanted to buy them for his house.”

Pleasantly surprised, Sillis agreed and from then on, other people started calling and asking her to paint for them and it turned into a small enterprise.

“I still never tried to sell,” she says. “I am much more creative than I am commercial, especially when it comes to my art.”

Although she maintained a full-time job, Sillis’s career as an artist continued to grow and she also branched out into another side business – selling Islamic swimwear.

Sillis converted to Islam when she was 16 and religion has played an important role in her life.

However, when it comes to her art, she does not only paint religious symbols.

“I paint them because they interest me, but I also do many other types of painting,” she explains. “For example, since I first started painting, I have been painting mandalas. Now I lead classes in these at the Dubai meditation centre.”