Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The minimalist maze

Rania Khallaf explores a way out

Al-Ahram Weekly

Unlike most Arab and Muslim calligraphers, who tend to restrict Arabic calligraphy to Quranic verses or Hadith, Sameh Ismail opted for a new approach to the world of contemporary calligraphy that makes it a more popular art, accessible to a wider range of art lovers. “A Safe Way Out” is the title Ismail chose for his new solo exhibition, currently showing at the Zamalek Art Gallery. As I first entered the spacious gallery, I was curious to explore this safe exit. However, the exhibited paintings were so huge that the viewer could easily lose his way in the large white spaces in between calligraphic elements, and the slow, circular lines.
“A Safe Way Out signifies two parallel concepts: political and personal,” Ismail says when asked what he means by the title. “It marks my transformation from a certain style in which calligraphic elements were clearer and bolder, to a new style in which calligraphy is too abstract to be noticed.” This exhibition, according to the calligrapher and painter, also marks a transformation to a future change in material and technique. “It is possible that I would explore videos, illustration, sculpture or ceramics as new media in my future exhibition. The political side of it is my wishing that Egypt will have a safe way out of this chaos that we have been living in through the last three years,” he added.
Around 30 paintings are exhibited in this, Ismail’s fifth solo exhibition; most are drawings on paper, with some paintings on canvas. Shades of black and brown are the dominant colours. The square and the dot are recurrent elements. “The square has a beautiful significance: it refers to stability and balance; the dot also refers to balance in Arabic calligraphy,” Ismail explains. “The rhombus, whether solid or hollow, allows for pores to let in new ideas or emotions in the hope of liberating thought and embracing a healthy disregard for outdated traditional values, as only useful traditional values should remain in this fast-growing technological age.” And indeed these fantastic works were accomplished with very simple materials such as graphite and charcoal pencils, organic powder and geometric stencils.  
Another important material used is the eraser, however: “I consider the eraser my hero; it has played a significant part in the process of drawing, as I tend to erase more lines than I add new ones. This allows me to have more white spaces to let light in, let silence prevail, and to avoid distortion and noise, letting the viewer’s eyes and brain relax.” Looking deeply at the paintings, the viewer will find out that each piece has its own rule; a different way out of the maze. The viewer will also trace some Latin and Japanese calligraphy, and I wonder what the need to merge this with Arabic is.
“I believe there is a kind of unity among different languages. What matters is the dynamic of the letter, the dynamic of the language; I attempt to create a universal language, and it is up to the viewer to figure out what the whole image denotes. In almost every new exhibition, I challenge myself and my audience, and attempt to throw in a thread that will lead to another change in the next project,” Ismail smiles, adding that he is proud to see his calligraphy at a prestigious gallery alongside major artists.
Born in 1974, Ismail graduated from the sculpture department of the College of Fine Arts in 1997. He is widely believed to be a pioneer in the use of Arabic calligraphy in contemporary art, and was chosen in 2013 as a two-year member of the Supreme Council of Culture. “I am going to organise calligraphy workshops in order to start a new movement, to keep up with the contemporary Islamic arts movement,” he says. Already he has participated in international exhibitions since 2006. In 2013, he curated the 53rd Vanguards, a fine arts fans’ association, and participated in the Noon wal-Kalam exhibition of contemporary Islamic calligraphy held in the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia (IAMM).
“It’s a pity that a country like Egypt was not well represented at such an important international art gathering,” he sighs. His hope, he says, is that the Ministry of Culture will pay more attention to the Islamic Museum in Cairo, in order to be connected with the contemporary Islamic arts movement, now led by Iran and Malaysia. “The IAMM has decided to purchase 14 works that represent the development of my calligraphic paintings since 2006, to be among its permanent acquisitions exhibited in the museum’s gallery,” Ismail beams with confidence.
The exhibition, with an excellent catalogue published by the gallery, runs until 28 January. 

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