Botanist of Letters: Wissam Shawkat

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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