Born in Basra in 1974, for Wissam Shawkat it was the form of four letters from the Arabic alphabet written across a school blackboard that started him on a journey that has shaped him both in early years and adulthood. He recalls finding peace and patience writing and repeating calligraphic letters on the dusty tiles of a makeshift shelter during a heavy aerial bombardment during the Iraq-Iran war and, spurred on by supportive parents, he became his own tutor.
His teen summers were spent lettering for a local sign shop before he began studying for a degree in Civil Engineering at Basra University, graduating in 1996. The life as a Civil Engineer, though, was not Shawkat’s destiny and the point where his affinity for letterforms would wait no longer quickly came.
In recent years, Shawkat has become known for a new calligraphic style, Al Wissam, which references a number of traditional scripts including Sunbuli, Jali Diwani, Eastern Kufic, and Thuluth, bringing them together with modern design.
It has been said that Wissam Shawkat is a rule-breaker. A modest individual, this loaded label is not something he’ll freely apply himself, but, that aside, it is impossible to deny that challenge is an ever present theme. We see it even in the way he goes about making new work – employing traditional tools and materials to produce a contemporary aesthetic. There is purpose in the liberating juxtaposition of using handmade paper reed pens and traditional inks to create works that ask us to think again about what Arabic calligraphy is and can be – a central Calligraformic characteristic and something that sits comfortably with an artist like Shawkat, whose less prescriptive route to Arabic calligraphy has always left him somewhere on the periphery of tradition.
I am a calligrapher turned conceptually motivated artist. How does someone self- trained in the most rigid, rule-based medium break out into abstraction? Now more than 30 years into my calligraphy practice, I dutifully studied traditional scripts, compositions, and forms until at last I felt qualified to judge which principles could be overridden and unbound, and which were to remain.
Before calligraphy was canonized as a form it was once considered revolutionary and experimental. My practice is an effort to take it back to that disorienting place that teeters on the edge of what is known and what is unfamiliar.
I am drawn to the graphic value of the Arabic letters well beyond their literal meanings. For instance, the sharp tail of a ‘ha’ can be cut off from the curved body of the letter and serialized with pen or brush at unrecognizable angles.
Although it may have initially come to me by meditating upon a letter, the ultimate shape is a monumental form that is not exclusively anchored in the Arab world. I am moved as much by old Turkish masters as I am by the Bauhaus, Geometric Abstraction, Futurism, Cubism, and Cecil Touchon’s collages.
Beginning with this new body of work, I have chosen to refer to my style and approach as Calligraform. This refers to the emphasis on the forms of the letters, their inner and outer spaces and graphic quality, investigated in tandem with the precise shapes of calligraphic characters.