Focus on Contemporary Art
This is a selection of contemporary artists included in Abstraction and Calligraphy – Towards a Universal Language. The fascination with the letterform has deep roots in the Arab world, Alice Querin, the exhibition’s project manager, notes:
“We must take into consideration many factors that have influenced Arab artistic production in the 21st century, including the rich and unique histories of West Asian and North African countries. Other critical components are political unrest, and consequently the displacement of Arab peoples since the second half of the 20th century, combined with the process of globalisation that is gradually leading to a universal and common vocabulary. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the modern movements in the Arab world, such as Hurufiyya, have made a crucial contribution to shaping contemporary Arab art. The letter is a continuous source of inspiration and creates impactful and relevant expressions”.
Nasser Al Salem
A calligrapher before becoming a visual artist, Nasser Al Salem has developed a protean practice whereby he explores the endless possibilities of Arabic script in sculpture. Son of a family of merchants from Mecca, Al Salem spent his childhood in the vicinity of the holy Kaaba, selling tents to pilgrims performing the hajj. This precocious encounter with faith and sacred ritual is everywhere present in his work.
Having first learned traditional calligraphy, he studied architecture at the Umm al Qura University in Mecca. Co-founder in 2015 of the Al Hangar collective, a member of the National Calligraphers Guild and the Saudi Arabian Arts and Culture Group, Al Salem plays a key role on the contemporary art scene. “And We adorned the lower heaven with lights.” Verse 12 of surah 41 of the Quran inspired Al Salem to create this hypnotic, poetic and spiritual work.
As is often the case in his work, Al Salem’s starting point is personal observation. Having noticed that during the tawaf — the circumambulation of the Kaaba – pilgrims perform seven circuits, he researched the number seven, which holds a central place in Islam (Al Fatiha, the opening surah of the Quran, consists of seven verses; the Kaaba was hung with the seven poems of the Mu’allaqat; seven heavens are mentioned in the Quran).
The work, whose vast dimensions draw us in physically, confronts us with a regular and infinitely ongoing movement. Referring back to the perfection of the Creation, Al Salem places the viewer at the centre of the cosmic order and immerses us in a reflection on the genesis of the universe, the Earth and human existence. (Marie Sarré)
Born in Paris of Tunisian parents, Faouzi Khlifi was for many years torn between two cultures, unable to fully identify with a Tunisia whose language he did not speak, and ill at ease in a France where xenophobia was sometimes rife. As a teenager, he began graffitiing as an antidote to this sense of cultural alienation. During a stay in Tunisia, noticing that Tunisian street artists worked only in English and were ignorant of Arabic writing, he studied calligraphy with a master of the art, changed his name to “eL Seed” and began featuring elements of traditional calligraphy in his compositions.
Since the late 1990s, and right up to the present time (Perception, Cairo, 2019), each of his works has been the result of a long research into the cultures and languages of the places concerned. Drawing inspiration from the Arab tradition of proverbs, he takes quotations of writers, poets and philosophers, or passages from the Quran, to convey messages of peace and reconciliation. His work is now featured worldwide in exhibitions and on public monuments, such as the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the mosque in Gabès and the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. In 2016, he was awarded the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture. (Marie Sarré)
Born in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Ahmed Khan grew up in Pakistan with his father, who encouraged him to paint and draw from an early age. In the late 1990s, he was strongly influenced by hip-hop culture, rap, BMX and beatboxing, and began doing figurative graffiti in the streets of Karachi, adopting the nickname of Sanki, “the eccentric”.
In 2013, when he was quickly moving towards more monumental pieces, he joined the American Beyond Mankind Krew (BMK), established in New York. In 2014, he produced his first “calligraffiti”, associating elements of traditional Arab calligraphy with the techniques of street art. Influenced by the Arab oral tradition, Sanki King includes quotations, diary entries, literary extracts and poetry in his works.
Here I Am is a calligraffiti inspired by Muhammad Iqbal’s poem, Shama. In one of the passages, Iqbal says “you are the path, the traveler, the guide, the destination”, he expresses the human instinct to strive for self-awareness and self-actualisation. With this artwork, Sanki King wants to present himself to the viewer in his totality explaining his own journey to self-awareness. The circular shape refers to a mandala, symbol of self and cosmic wholeness. (Marie Sarré)