The calligraphic connection

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

Rania Khallaf attended a seminar on the work of artist-calligrapher Sameh Ismael

Robert Switzer discussed the relationship between art and the audience
Robert Switzer


The fusion of philosophy and art was the subject of a seminar on the Arabic calligraphy-inspired work of artist Sameh Ismael at the American University in Cairo’s Oriental Hall last week. The event featured a screen showcasing Ismael’s work and AUC philosophers discussing it in the light of their work.

Robert Switzer discussed the relationship between art and the audience, in the light of Kant’s precept that art is universal, analysing Ismael’s work in the light of the phenomenological ideas of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. “The mission of art,” he said, “is sending oneself towards the truth.” Switzer talked about the perception of the art work as a product from the standpoint of Heidegger’s 1950 article on the origin of the work of art, in which Heidegger discusses the function of art using Van Gogh’s peasant’s shoes as an example. At the end of his talk, Switzer urged Ismael in his upcoming exhibitions to think more deliberately about his materialistic reality and explore new ways of expression. 

“Each artwork,” Switzer said, “is perceived differently according to the environment where it was originally produced, even in the same culture. For example, within Islamic culture the artistic expression of art in the Mameluke era is surely different than the way it was perceived during the Andalusian period. And here comes the importance of calligraphy, which deals with the word, which is the most important materialistic human product. The word, with its historical and cultural dimensions, has enormous value. This is why Islamic art focuses on the significance of calligraphy… 

“The medium,” he went on, “a canvas, paper or a wall, should reflect this dynamic relationship between the artist and the society he lives in. One of the good points in Ismael’s artwork is that it doesn’t impose a specific narration or a metaphysical framework on the viewer. Ismael’s artwork also raises this complicated and tense relationship between the vocal and the written word.” 

Ahmed Abdel-Meguid discussed art in the light of the transcendent in the work of Kant and Ibn Arabi. One of the most problematic issues in history is the relationship between image and material and which comes first. According to Ibn Sina, art can be defined as creating beautiful form. The imagination is the source of all artwork. And, according to Ibn Arabi, he continued, the perfection of human beings is the perfection of imagination. 

“The values of justice, beauty and knowledge are essential for perfection, which is related to God, the source of all perfections. Through properly following the ethics and rules and practice of morality and spiritual exercise, one perfects oneself as a conscious being in the world.”

Ibn Arabi, Abdel-Meguid went on to explain, said human beings are the only beings that stand connects the worlds of materialism and spirituality. Abdel-Meguid pointed out that the Arabic word sina’a or industry was used by early Arabs instead of fann or art. If art is about making things, then we constantly face this critical issue. In his attempt to analyse Ismael’s rich achievement in calligraphy, Abdel-Meguid said the artist is the outcome of an Egyptian environment known for its mixed cultures: an Arabic and Islamic legacy that coexists with the materialistic modern culture and the manifestations of capitalism. 

The first professional stage of Ismael’s calligraphy, which started in 2006, focused on exploring the possibilities and aesthetics of Arabic letters, while the second was an attempt to combine the semantics of Arabic prose of Ibn Arabi and Al Hallaj. In the third stage, the artist subordinated calligraphy to the demands of contemporary art. This was followed by another stage characterised by an immigration to radical abstraction, then a conceptual deconstruction stage. The fifth and sixth stages started with the outbreak of the 25 January Revolution in 2011, and were characterised by the artist’s use of graffiti techniques, while the seventh was influenced by his travels to Arab countries where he was introduced to different techniques of contemporary Arabic calligraphy. 

“The last and most mature stage is the current stage, where the artist started using the circular shape extensively,” Abdel-Meguid argued. He further explained that, for Ibn Arabi, the circle is the symbol of unity and the plurality relationship. “The point is in the circle,” Ibn Arabi once said. This statement focuses on the Hajj, in which Muslims circle the Kaaba. It is as if every individual resembles a point in the circle, in which he sees God according to his position and view. 

For Ismail, the circle “has many connotations. It resembles the movement of planets in the universe. It also has a psychological dimension as it refers to loneliness and estrangement. The circle denotes the eternal dialectical relation between life and death and the circle of life,” he explained. “I consider this debate as a valuable assessment of my body of work. It is significant for any artist to have such a critique from a philosophical view, given that philosophy is the origin of wisdom.” 

Born in Cairo in 1974, Ismael graduated from the graphics department of the faculty of fine arts in Zamalek in 1997. The popular artist, who has given many significant solo exhibitions in the last 20 years, was recently selected as the General Commissar of the upcoming 44th round of the general exhibition, the most significant annual event organised by the Visual Arts Sector.

A master of contemporary calligraphy and a prolific artist, Ismael managed  to gain himself a special niche in Egypt’s contemporary art scene. “My entire career in art has been dedicated to calligraphy and Islamic art,” he said. “My everyday life activities revolve around practices related to the art of calligraphy and Islamic architecture, which I studied as a teenager for two years at the school of calligraphy before I decided to study the art of design and advertisement. In the beginning, I wanted to be a digital typographer not a calligrapher. 

“However, as I continued studying art, I came to realise that Arabic calligraphy is a huge vessel that includes all the aesthetics of fine arts. Later on, my research into the aesthetics of calligraphy led me to enter this realm through the gateway of visual arts, and specifically from an abstract perspective.”

Islamic art, he said, is one obvious manifestation of geometrical abstraction. “As an artist, I have never intended to address Muslim and Arab viewers only. My approach to Arabic calligraphy was never connected to the Islamic identity of the Arabic letters,” he stressed. “I have always been curious to achieve a visual equation where Arabic calligraphy becomes a contemporary genre addressing all humanity. This has never been an easy mission, though.”

For art lovers and collectors, a painting with unreadable Arabic calligraphy was rather  complicated, he added, smiling. In addition, the artist’s recent works depict some Asian calligraphy to the composition of his paintings.

“All Arabic calligraphy styles, surprisingly, were originally established in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Egypt has not produced any distinguished calligraphic style. It is not my mission to invent a new style, but I hope one day a typographer will benefit from my experience,” Ismael concluded. 

When an audience member asked whether his work might go beyond calligraphy in the near future, the artist replied that this has never crossed his mind. “There is a lot to be explored still,” he said. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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