Seminal calligrapher Wissam Shawkat collaborated with Van Cleef & Arpels to celebrate the Perlée collection and share a message of harmony through his special masterwork for Eid al-Fitr. He speaks to Canvas about the merging of the traditional with the contemporary and how calligraphy can strike a chord with everyone.
How did the partnership with Van Cleef & Arpels begin?
WS: It all started last November when Van Cleef & Arpels approached me to design a special piece for Ramadan and their Perlée campaign. I was excited because of the idea behind the work, the creativity and the process. I’ve worked with many other luxury brands, designing Arabic logos to match Latin script. I connected with Van Cleef & Arpels through Tashkeel, where I have been an active member since 2009 and hosted workshops and had two solo shows. Van Cleef & Arpels and Tashkeel also have a relationship from their long-standing collaboration on the Van Cleef & Arpels Middle East Emergent Designer Prize.
Can you talk about the Eid collaboration?
The master artwork was inspired by the Perlée collection, based on spherical beads. I wanted to bring that element into the design through the circular shapes and dots, which look like 3D renderings of pearls. The text in English says “Let harmony bring us together to enlighten our lives. The words are harmonious with each other, as parts of some letters complete others from the previous word. The main word meaning “bring us together is the largest circle and holds the whole design together. The style is called al Wissam, which is a style of calligraphy I started in 2004. It was named after me through social media because artists and designers started using it. It has a contemporary feel, yet you still find all of the aesthetics present in classical scripts. The materials I used in the artworks are those traditionally employed in the art of Arabic calligraphy, from the paper, which is handmade and hand-coated with alum, egg whites and starch, to the Inks, which are also handmade from pigments. I wanted to combine traditional tools and materials with something very modern.
Why is calligraphy so important regionally as an art form?
Calligraphy is the artistic identity of the region. It also became very widespread because of its connections to Islam and the writing of the Qur’an, so this is how it grew. Since the 1960s calligraphy has been practiced as a contemporary art form, but now it is becoming even more popular due to the internet. Connections are created between artists around the world, and Images and media are readily available. When I was a kid, it was hard to find resources. I had just one book about calligraphy, but now, with a single click, you have access to everything. I truly think these are the glory days for calligraphy across the region.
Let’s talk about your recent solo show Back to Basics: Wissam Shawkat A Calligraphic Journey at Mestaria Gallery in Alserkal Avenue.
This is my biggest solo exhibition yet, with 81 original artworks and a catalogue. It’s a journey in styles and the evolution of my work, from the basic practice sheets that I’m exhibiting to traditionally classic calligraphy and what I call the new classic, the al Wissam style My latest work, which I call calligraforms, merges calligraphy with Western abstract art. From my experience, people look at calligraphy in the same way as they look at abstract art. They love the form, the movement and the dynamic relationship between the shapes. With calligraforms, I don’t intend for the letters to be legible. Calligraphy Is an artwork and should be appreciated as a visual form, not as text.