Egyptian artist renegotiates identity harmonising calligraffiti, visual art, illustrations

Nourhan Tewfik, Thursday 4 Jun 2015

In the heyday of conceptual thinking, calligrapher Mahmoud Atef seeks to create an amalgam of the traditional and the contemporary

Mahmoud Atef
Fragment from artwork with the word "ishq," written using Kufi Qayrawani font. (Photo: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)

Uninhibited letters dance about the white expanse in utter spontaneity, all the while confining themselves to a circular geometric pattern. Shades of green fuse with blue, maroon and black.  Inside this chain, arrays of pistachio green letters wander about freely.

The word “al hob” (love) sits at the inner center in big bold letters, and beneath it flows the rest of poet Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi’s famous line (awalaho hazl, wa akherahou jad), translating into “at first, it is a comical encounter, but it ends in all momentousness.”

This unconventional work of art belongs to calligrapher Mahmoud Atef’s repertoire.  Also an established poet, writer, and previously a cultural-development worker, Atef embarks on audacious experimentations with this classical Arabic form.

Yet Atef's artwork is steeped in contemporariness as he fuses classical calligraphy with modern graffiti art, visual art and illustrations. For the artist, this composite of the old and new has a philosophical underpinning: the notion of Al haweyya (identity) is what he tries to both preserve and renegotiate through his work.

Mahmoud Atef
The quote is from Ibn Hazm Al Andalusi's book Tawq al Hamamah (The Ring of the Dove). Here, Atef used the Moroccan font and added a hint of contemporariness by employing vibrant inks and 'writing' a frame using singular letters.(Photo: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)

Speaking to Ahram Online, Atef explains that his works are inspired by, amongst other things, “the apprehension that preoccupies me regarding who I am, coming from the countryside but living in Cairo on my own.”

“I preserve some of the principles my parents have taught me, yet also hold onto a dissimilar set of ideas, and approach my relationships with people and life differently,” he adds.

This is perhaps why, for Atef, the ongoing problematique in modern Arabic thought -- of whether we should remain loyal to our heritage or acquire modernity -- is rather futile and this is because "when it came to moulding my identity, I found that elements from both could mingle harmoniously,” he asserts.  

Atef’s varied repertoire is backed up by years of studying. He earned a diploma in calligraphy, and studied at one of Cairo’s oldest and most prominent calligraphy centres. He continues to study to this day.

On the accessibility of calligraphy  

Of his attempts at adding a tinge of contemporariness to calligraphy, Atef has employed “calligraffiti”, an amalgam of classical calligraphy and contemporary graffiti. He first heard the term from French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, one of a handful of artists who practice this form of graffiti, besides Lebanon-based artists Yazan Halawani and Ali Rafei.

“I sought to create a fusion of the old and new: classical calligraphic traditions with an element of contemporariness-whether through the use of flamboyant colors or by integrating more than one calligraphy font at once.”

Mahmoud Atef
A sample of Atef's calligraffiti. A line of poetry was written using Kufi font and is embraced by the words "hob" (love) and "mahabba" (affection)-both of which are written repetitively using Al Wessam font. (Photo: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)

Using a thin paintbrush instead of commonly used spray paint, Atef adorned indoor walls in people’s homes and inside work places, to make what is already considered a public art more accessible and allowing for handy encounters with this form of art.

“This is especially important in Egypt where calligraphy doesn’t constitute much importance. People only see it on an election banner, or a doctor’s placard-both of which are usually ugly, so they may not be familiar with the right form of calligraphy. Also, the high cost of calligraphy paintings renders it an even more inaccessible art.”

It is this attempt at introducing the use of calligraphy to every-day life that incited Atef to also experiment with fashion. He collaborated with a t-shirt production company to design t-shirts sporting Arabic calligraphy letters that people can wear and relate to.

Free composition

While abiding by classical calligraphy rules, Atef experiments further: he introduces a rather unconventional composition of the painting itself.

“One of calligraphy’s particularities is having a background pattern shaped as a decorative unit of traditional Islamic ornamentations that you write the letters on and which complements the painting. I sought to play around with this pattern instead of abiding by traditional shapes, like the circle or square.”  

At other times, he chooses to remain loyal to the classical composition, yet employs an array of vibrant inks, and distances himself from the black and toned down colours that are characteristic of calligraphy.

But perhaps his most daring experimentation with composition is in how he incorporates visual art in his calligraphy paintings. In other words, instead of following traditional rules, he approaches the work of art using the philosophy, rules and also the tools of visual art; namely acrylic paint, brushes and canvas.

Mahmoud Atef
Here, Atef incorporates visual art to create a calligraphy painting. The font used is Jalli-diwani. From "Shamal Wa Ganoub". (Photo: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)

“Egyptian scholar, historian Abou Al Abbas Al Qalaqashandi, once called calligraphy 'still' but able to communicate a certain meaning. Size and positioning of the letters also convey this meaning. This is what I aspire for when integrating visual art, for the design to convey meaning and have a concept behind it, especially now that we are in the heyday of conceptual art.”

To further explain, Atef tells me about a collection of four paintings he is currently preparing for a Ramadan exhibition.

“Each of the four paintings will have a synonym of love- whether 'ishq (adoration), walaa (infatuation), etc.-written on it. How the letters will be written, and the colours I’ll choose will reflect the essence of love, that is the fluidity of relationships. This meaning is inspired by philosopher Zygmunt Bauman's book Liquid Love: On The Frailty Of Human Bonds."

Bauman explores how human relations were affected by modernism, how it had triggered off a crisis where the person in love sways between looking for freedom while also yearning for a sense of security. Atef wanted to depict the spontaneous flow of this contradiction.  

“The main idea here is to show that heritage can be used in a modern way. In this project, I remain loyal to the background pattern but approach the block and its relationship with the surrounding empty space, differently. Also, in place of colours traditionally used in Islamic ornamentations-gold, blue and brown - I use light shades of pink, green and blue, in addition to neon colours.”

Creating a visual equivalent

But in as much as this fusion of calligraphy and visual art can be employed to convey meaning, Atef endeavours to prove that it can also complement other forms of art, and in his case function as a visual equivalent to his literary creativities.

Atef tells me he recently experimented with this functionality as part of “Shamal wa Ganoub" (North and South), a project held by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and funded by the European Union, where participating artists embarked on a three week journey around Egypt, discovering Egyptian culture and were to translate their impressions into works of art.

The result was an exhibition, which comprised works by 100 artists from different fields including graphic design, painting, writing, photography and video art, and which will be showcased at the end of 2015.

Mahmoud Atef
Lines by Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib written in thuluth font. Atef wrote it for a short film's opening credits. (Photo: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)

During the journey, Atef was intrigued by the Pharaonic quest for immortality, and how there was a classist scuffle where only the kings were entitled to immortality. The workers preparing the king’s burial place would sort of challenge this notion by stealing some of his tools. As if saying, that despite their economic conditions, they too deserved immortality.

“So I wrote a text to convey this classist conflict in an abstract painting of Arabic calligraphy, where this struggle is clear even in the relationship of letters with one another. To do that, I followed an abstractionist approach, there was no clear writing and letters were wandering about in the painting’s void. Their meaning could only be conveyed by looking at the original text.”

Another project that witnesses Atef’s attempt to create harmony between calligraphy and literature is that of the “hamesh” (margin).

“In the past, books were composed in such a way that the text constituted a small part of the page, with a vast white area to house the reader’s written remarks. To the extent that books would be reprinted with reader’s comments.”

Inspired by a friend who was integrating this idea of margins in a children’s book, Atef decided to experiment with the same idea in one of his poems.

“I wrote the poem’s title in big bold letters, then drew some abstract lines on the side, and wrote the text in small sentences on the side. The poem looked more like an annotation. So there was this essence of the old Arabic books, but with a new twist-in that the page’s main text itself acted as the margin.”

Mahmoud Atef
LEFT: The word "ishq" is written using Kufi Qayrawani font. Here, Atef experiments with the painting's composition and attempts to depict the essence of old Arabic manuscripts by using flat two-dimensional shapes. He also integrates the idea of wide margins which is characteristic of old Arabic books. --- RIGHT: The opening lines of Arab poet Ibn al-Farid's "Howwa Al Hob" (On Love). Here, Atef used the Moroccan font, and experimented with the flamboyant inks, as well as a frame composed of singular letters. (Photos: courtesy of Mahmoud Atef)


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