Even the most skilled calligraphers will not necessarily be able to decipher the letters used in Wissam Shawkat's latest body of work titled Inside/Outside.
The artist, who trained for more that 15 years to become a master of the Thuluth script – the most elaborate form of Arabic calligraphy – puts the focus for his latest pieces on the outline of the letters and the white space in between.
In pieces such as Balance and Through the Eyes of Letters, the seemingly non-representational forms are not at all random – once you realise they are simply based on the outer edges of the characters, you start to appreciate Shawkat's vision.
“I have been studying Arabic calligraphy since I was 10 years old,” says Shawkat, who was born in Iraq and lives in Dubai. “However, even from back then, I have been attracted primarily to the graphic values of the letters.”
He tells the story of how a teacher in Basra, where Shawkat grew up during the Iran-Iraq war, wrote five simple letters on the board and that triggered the artist’s passion for calligraphy.
“However, for me it was the graphic qualities that fascinated me,” he says. “I always look at calligraphy from a designer’s point of view – I see the curves and the forms.” It was only after excelling in Arabic writing that Shawkat began to notice the inner dimensions of the letters, which is paramount when judging the quality of a piece of calligraphy.
“When we write any piece, we master what is around the letter, the negative and positive space,” he says. “We write in black ink, but it is the counterparts that show the perfection of the letters. That is really what our eyes see.”
In his exhibition, the letters he works with most are “ha” and “ba” – the Arabic letters that make up the word, “hob”, which translates as love.
You cannot help but be swept up in Shawkat’s love for the art form. His discussions and works often acts as a love letter to Arabic letters.
Another area that he continues to explore with Inside/Outside is his fascination with the Bauhaus movement – a period that united art and industrial design in the 1920s. Bauhaus Symphony and Dance are two pieces in particular that underline this. The fascinating thing about the pieces is that Shawkat remains dedicated to the strict rules of production accompanying calligraphy, while at the same time immersing himself in the western traditions that fascinate him. This moves him from the realms of the traditional artist to a more conceptual role.
“I am taking the calligraphic quality of the letters and maintaining the structure but removing all meaning – and in some circumstances without actually using letters at all,” he says. “My intention is not to show meaning but to look at calligraphy from a different perspective.”
• Inside/Outside is at XVA Gallery in Dubai until March 7. For details, visit www.xvagallery.com