by Yasmine El-Geressi
The exquisite art of Arabic calligraphy has mesmerized people through its grace and powerful beauty for centuries. One of the most prominent calligraphy artists, Iraq-born Hassan Massoudy, is internationally recognised for his distinctive practice that draws on words and phrases from writers from throughout the centuries such as poet Charles Baudelaire and philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ibn ‘Arabi. He translates these historically rich texts into vibrant, modern works, drawing inspiration not only from the great Arabic masters but also from the artists Léger, Matisse, Soulages and Picasso. Peace and tolerance are central themes of Massoudy’s artistic expression as the word itself remains his most sublime creative force.
Majalla interviewed Hassan Massoudy in light of his current solo exhibition in London.
Q. Tell us about yourself.
I am a calligraphy and fine artist, born in 1944 in Najaf, Iraq. I worked for 8 years as a calligrapher in Baghdad. Since 1969, I have lived and worked in Paris as a fine artist using Arabic script in my paintings.
Q. Tell us about your current exhibition at the October Gallery in London.
Ten years ago, the October Gallery in London invited me to create a solo exhibition which had a wide turnout. Over the years, the gallery has continued to introduce my works of art in modern Arabic calligraphy and has displayed my work in museums, including in Singapore and New York. A few years ago, the October Gallery also established a major exhibition in Abu Dhabi at the official invitation of the ADMAF Music Festival.
For the second time, the October Gallery is currently running a solo exhibition in which about 40 of my paintings on paper and fabric are displayed. The opening was on 6 December and was attended by a large audience. The gallery then met with the audience on 9 December and Gerard Houghton, one of the gallery’s staff, presented me to the public with images representing the story of my artistic life. The gallery published an elegant catalogue of all the artworks displayed and distributed it to visitors free of charge. The exhibition will continue until 27 January.
Q. How did you discover calligraphy and go on to adopt this age-old art as your form of artistic expression?
In 1954, when I was ten years old, my teacher admired my handwriting. This encouraged me to pay attention to the beauty of the letters. To this day, beautiful calligraphy evokes a strong emotional response within me. After studying in middle school, I worked as a professional calligrapher for eight years in Baghdad. I continued my search into the history of Arabic calligraphy through scripts written on paper and on the walls of architectural monuments and the things we use in daily life, many of which are now in international museums. I discovered the vast aesthetic richness of calligraphy across a wide geographical area stretching from China in the East to Andalusia in the West.
Q. Your style is arrestingly unconventional. What made you make the shift from the traditional rules of Arabic calligraphy that was once limited to religious writings and Islamic architecture to more modern takes with different shapes, sizes, and vibrant colours? Is this the result of the cultural transitions you experienced in your life?
As the saying goes: A man is his method. So, after 8 years of working as a calligrapher in Baghdad and 49 years of artistic work in Paris, my artwork is the result of the cultural transformations I have encountered in my life as you say. In Paris I met artists from different places around the globe but the most important works that affected my style are the different meetings I had with other artists on the stage – actors, musicians, dancers, or lectures. In these meetings, the audience would watch me create calligraphy live on a big screen. These encounters compelled me to make rapid gestures, while traditionally Arabic calligraphy is very slow. The rapidity also required me to switch tools and to innovate new tools related to the form and essence of the new artistry.
Thus, the music, dance movements and the voice of the actor, as well as the hall and the audience, gave birth to a new style of calligraphy which belongs to the same family but is dissimilar to the traditional style.
To say that my lines are vibrant requires me to thank you for this important observation. When I am alone in the studio I can draw at a slow pace and I draw several to choose the best, while drawing in front of the public requires an instantaneous and rapid expression of what is going on in my heart, there is no room to go back and fix or change a line. I used to always live moments of pain and hope and this is the spirit of artistic creation. These emotions penetrate the vibrant lines and this method became my permanent calligraphy style.
Q. The ornamentation of your Arabic calligraphy forces the reader to go beyond the precise meaning of the words into the radiating beauty of the message. How do you begin choosing and forming the message you want to convey?
There is no doubt that we are talking here about a work of art. It is difficult to answer clearly what the state of the human psyche is at the moment of artistic expression as the subconscious participates a great deal in charging sensations when creating calligraphy art. I choose a small phrase first which must inspire imaginative images in my mind. At the same time, the philosophical or poetic phrase must be a source of hope and move towards the future. I then select the most important word from the passage and enlarge it, and the rest of the passage I draw smaller. The shape of the letters will be according to what the words suggest to me internally – sometimes it is the essence of the words and sometimes I do not achieve what I want and will repeat it days later. But in other cases, I have internal feelings and want to find a phrase that coveys a message close to what I feel. For example, after a trip to the Sahara, I feel a sense of lightness, breadth and warmth. So I read pre-Islamic poetry, perhaps Al-Nabigha, Qothayir or Antara, to help me find a visual form of the feelings I live when reading their poetic verses.
Q. Your work is constant dialogue between the present and past, oriental and occidental, tradition and modernity and a sense of balance prevails. How would you describe this intimate relationship you have with the art of written Arabic and how did you manage to preserve your own heritage in your work while exploring these dimensions?
Visitors to my exhibitions often tell me: Those who wrote the phrases that you have drawn are from places that are far and wide and from old and modern times, but they unite in their vision and expression. To answer your question, I say that my Arab culture and my openness to the cultures of the world while in Paris made me take the best from every society. As Sultan Abdel said in the sixteenth century, “If the world is a flower, I want to be a bee.”
Q. Your art conveys different messages and texts from a diverse range of poets and philosophers, with the concern placed on peace, tolerance as well as social and global issues. This has led you to work with Amnesty International, UNICEF and other related organisations. Can you talk to us the work you have done with these organisations.
The aim of all my work is to promote human dignity in an atmosphere of tolerance, peace and respect for the law. In view of the horrific images of the current wars that we see every day, I respond with works of art aimed at developing the spirit of love, spiritual wealth and non-violence. This makes me close to humanitarian associations. It is difficult to summarise all the meetings and work I have done with them over about 50 years.
Q. Inspired by timeless proverbs and poems from around the world, you released a book called “Calligraphies of Love” which takes us on a visual journey through love in its many forms. Why does the world need this book and what processes did you go through when you were choosing the proverbs and poems?
Since 1981, I have published 25 books with major publishing houses, some of which are on traditional calligraphy and others contain my paintings or decorative literary texts. Of those books, two of them carry the same name and have a special place in me. The first was published in Paris after the events of September 11 – The Lines of Love – it is a great and elegant book that was published in Arabic and French by the publishing house Alban Michele. The paintings include expressions from the poets of the Islamic world to illustrate to the European community that these poets and their love for mankind are part of the Islamic world. This book has received wide attention and has been reprinted several times and can still be found in libraries today.
The second book of the same subject was published by the publishing house al-Saqi in London last year and despite being small, it contains more than 100 poetic and philosophical phrases in Arabic and English originating from all over the world. Although some of my books have been translated and published in other languages, they unfortunately have not entered Arab countries.
Q. What makes the ancestral art of Arabic calligraphy far more than just an art of written forms while remaining a form of expression that can be constantly reinvented by artists over the centuries?
All ancient civilizations used pictures and handwriting in works of art, while the Islamic civilization encouraged handwriting at the expense of pictures. Pictures in our communities remained in books and in some valuable objects and since books decorated with pictures were expensive, they remained only inside the palaces. As for art created for the public, calligraphy was found on the large walls of mosques, libraries, tombs and palaces. This continued from the ninth century to the nineteenth century AD. Throughout this period, calligraphers continued to reinvent the art in innumerable forms, which we discover today because of the ease of sharing photographs around the world. We see that some old calligraphy art are more than just writing. Through letter formation the calligrapher added a hidden abstract expression, or it can be said that half a picture requires the viewer to meditate to see the engineering structure the calligrapher has hidden behind his work. Today, Arabic calligraphy is receiving wide attention from artists.
Q. Over your illustrious career you have produced a lot of very beautiful calligraphy. Is there one piece that really stands out in your mind as the pinnacle of your work?
I have been creating calligraphy art every day for around a century, so I have many works and they are all expressions of life. Every moment we live is a part of our lives, so all my art works are me and I do not favour one over the other.
Q. How do you feel about the survival of calligraphic or other forms of art, given the tragedies that are today affecting the archaeological heritage of your native region?
Your question brings me the world of worries that I live every day. And I ask myself the question: what is the value of art against the terrifying images coming from the war zones that are going on in our countries? After an internal dialogue, I believe that culture through literature and art can enrich the peaceful side of people. In the past, the artist painted the horrors of war, as did the Spanish artist Goya and later Picasso. Mobile phones take on the same task today but the images they send are more real. What remains today for the artist is to play an educational role in uniting people and renouncing violence. Literature and art look at man in a general way, away from his origin and tribal affiliation.
I believe that every group of people on earth need artists and writers to connect them with their artistic and literary heritage to make the future clearer.
The exhibition ‘Breath, Gesture And Light’ by Hassan Massoudy is on view until January 27, 2018 at October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, London, WC1N 3AL.