CATALOGUE TEXT: The ability to read Arabic is irrelevant when it comes to appreciating Wissam Shawkat’s work. While traditional calligraphy embellishes a text or verse, the pieces comprising Inside/Outside, the artist’s first show at XVA Gallery in Dubai, do not contain prescriptive written messages. When encountered out of context, it might not even occur to viewers that these Calligraforms—the term Shawkwat has chosen to name his new style and approach to abstract collages, silkscreen prints, and works on paper—have a foundation in calligraphy at all.

Arabic calligraphy is a rigorous medium constrained by fixed stylistic scripts, stalwart rules, and a classic master-student transmission of skill. The Arabic alphabet is made up of 28 characters. Each letter appears differently depending upon its position in a word, and can be placed in initial, medial, final, or stand alone form with prescribed connections, flourishes, or tails. Shawkat continues to follow these assumptions with precise attention and real reverence.

After his primary school teacher Muhammad Ridha Suhail introduced the class to calligraphic forms, a ten year-old Shawkat began to gain knowledge of the medium in Basra, where he grew up amidst the Iran-Iraq War. It’s not a memory he likes to discuss, but he vividly recalls writing and re-writing the letter Ha, over and over again on the tile floor of a half-built bathroom in a construction site where his family had taken shelter during a particularly heavy aerial bombardment. Shawkat was arguably drawn to the fixed order of Arabic calligraphy at a time when his world was in chaos—studying, copying, and revising thuluth (the most complex, demanding script) until reaching mastery many years later.

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COLLECTOR PROFILE: Doha, Qatar. “Doha’s skyline is an untamable urban garden of steel and glass skyscrapers, each more futuristic than the next. Yet, just 30 minutes’ drive into the desert quarter of Al Samriya lies a striking fortress, complete with windswept turrets. The thick limestone walls of the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani Museum keep visitors cool in summer and insulated in winter, while ornately carved wooden shutters are fastened to shield from the intense sun and to fend off would-be invaders. Columns and archways feature ablaq, an Islamic design technique dating back to the ancient Umayyad dynasty showcasing stripes and checkers of dark and light stone.”

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CATALOGUE TEXT: Dubai, UAE. “Dubai has grown in audacious bursts and daily life surges ahead at a breakneck pace, nearly as quickly as new skyscrapers dot the dusty horizon. With Seamless Loop, Sheikha Wafa Bint Hasher Al Maktoum isolates eight iconic images from the Emirate in distinct screen prints and textile-based embroidery works, presenting staid symbols in highly conceptual form, all circumscribed within the traditional mandala structure.”

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ARTIST PROFILE: Dubai, UAE. “Drinking from a glass of juice made from mangos heavy on the trees of his own garden, Abdul Qader Al Rais perches on a red leather chair in his home studio, where completed paintings lean against every possible surface, spilling out into the French Rococo-inspired foyer. Behind him is a half-finished watercolor diptych—storm clouds charge across the top half of the canvas in temperamental greys and purples, while the lower portion remains as immaculately blank as the artist’s kandora.”

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