Egyptian artist Heba Helmi explores secret messages of calligraphy at Cairo's NWT House

Salma Hussein , Thursday 12 Dec 2019

Helmi's exhibition, Talisman, opened on 4 December and runs through 15 January 2020


In her Talisman exhibit, artist and designer Heba Helmi mixes paints, fabrics and ceramics to celebrate the beauty of Arabic letters. An intriguing and curious journey which pays homage to calligraphy is on display until 15 January 2020 at the NWT House, a cultural centre in Maadi, Cairo.

"At first, I wanted to learn a calligraphy style called tolouth, because I wanted to break with repeating the same computer-generated characters. Finally, I learned tolouth as well as other styles of this art," Helmi said at the opening on 4 December.

The artist has already held several exhibitions in Cairo and London, where her paintings and portraits spoke of details and feelings. Her book "A Girl in a Bag" is a successful attempt to use letters to 'paint' the unique journey of a girl who turns into a woman.

A few years ago, the artist and designer referred to many books in order to master the art of Arabic calligraphy. As she advanced in her explorations, she was helped by a true master of the genre, Mohamed Hammam.

Hammam comments on his first encounter with Helmi saying, "three years ago, she came to me, saying she wanted to learn Arabic calligraphy. She kept coming back, often showing me the book covers she had made, and I just had to correct a few details in the letters."

For Helmi, “calligraphy has become my new meditation technique. It’s therapeutic. To make a beautiful curve by drawing a letter, I breathe regularly and after several inhales and exhales, I draw, at once, a curve different from the classic curves of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. For instance, I would add a little tail to it. This is how I invented my own alphabet."

"The works on display in this exhibition carry hidden messages. They are infused with my feelings. I also use slogans that caught my attention during the 2011 Revolution. You need to look closely to decipher them," Helmi said.

It is true that by looking carefully at the various paintings of the exhibition, one ends up discovering that they are not really typical Arabic letters and that the letters are formed with different materials: fabric, paper, leather, silk or jute canvases, in various shapes and colours.

As such, Helmi's calligraphy as expressed through 50 works on display form unreadable words, in length and width. They are drawn, sometimes embroidered or cut out.


Surprises of ceramics

While Helmi multiplies the techniques, exploring new letters and materials, she arranges her works in series, as if to tell a story that only those who go beyond words can understand. Visitors are thus taken on a spiritual and mystical journey.

“I immersed myself in the world of letters. I have read books on the history of writing, from its invention, to the history of secret codes and talismans," Helmi added.

The exhibition also illustrates wonderfully the artist’s journey in this learning process.

"I started by working on paper, then I wanted to experiment with other materials. One day, as I visited El-Ataba market, I found artificial leather. That was a real discovery! In the past, artists often worked with fabric, wood or stone, but for me, artificial leather is the best material for absorbing ink and on which I can easily bend letters. In addition, it is golden, so it allowed me to have the luster that I am searching for."

After her fascination with leather, Helmi turned to ceramics. The artist has spent a long time in the village of Tunis, Fayoum, famous for its pottery workshops. The marriage between the art of pottery and the folklore she drew from the surrounding peasant atmosphere added to her creative development.

This is when Helmi joined her two passions -- pottery and calligraphy -- creating very original works.

"The result you get when working with pieces of ceramics is always a surprise. No one can guarantee the effect of the oven on colours," she explains.

The colours of the works on display are not well defined, they are rather an amalgam of fused and pearly shades. It is up to the visitor to define the colour and decipher the codes.  

This article was originally published in French, in Al Ahram Hebdo's 11 December 2019 issue.

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