As a student of calligraphy, our main task is to learn and master the techniques, methods and forms of the traditional scripts. But, for the masters of the art, they typically follow two paths; preservation of the traditional scripts from generation to generation, or taking the art to a new level. One such person who took calligraphy to a whole new level is master artist Wissam Shawkat; someone who not only mastered the traditional styles but merged modern and traditional techniques to develop a conceptual abstract form of calligraphic art.

Wissam Shawkat is a renowned Dubai-based master artist in graphic designing, calligraphy and typography. He is originally from Iraq where he received his degree in Civil Engineering from Basra University in 1996. He exhibits all over the world and received many accolades for his work. He has contributed to both private and public collections.

I recently had the great pleasure to speak to him where he explained how he developed an unique style of calligraphy after studying the art for more than 30 years. In this interview, he also offers some advice for calligraphy students.

Your advice for a student who wants to follow your path

In art class, my teacher wrote four letters in Ruqa'a style. And as a calligrapher I’m sure you know, Ruqa’a is very primitive, it’s very simple. But, I was obsessed with these four letters. Letters have graphic values, so I think that helped me a lot. Often, in the traditional relationship between student and master you don’t want to break the rules, you don’t want to change a lot. I noticed in my interactions with other calligraphers who are studying in Turkey under a master, there is that fear of changing styles, or what if the master doesn't accept the changes. For me it was not this way, I was completely the other way around. I have the freedom and so I always break the rules. 

I have studied calligraphy for more than 33 years, and have spent a large amount of time practicing and looking at different forms of calligraphy. I would meet calligraphers and get advice from them, but always had my own way of doing things. So I guess this had an effect on me plus maybe because again, I love design, I love lettering, I love latin calligraphy, I read a lot of about typography that helped me to shape my style. 

I always wanted to work in something related to letter design, not just in traditional Arabic calligraphy. I always wanted to design logos, and I always wanted to design typefaces. Often, when someone studies traditional calligraphy they are stuck with the tradition. I am not against tradition, but I think once you absorb all the traditional teaching you need to have your own style. This is the way I see it, in art, in order to leave a mark in history you need to do something new, you can’t just copy what’s been done a hundred years ago. If you master the rules you can break them later. The way you will break them is with confidence, with the right way of breaking the rules. 

For someone living in the U.S, one should study the traditional method in parallel to modern artists, lettering artists and Latin letters forms and design. The design of all different types of letter forms is similar not in shape, but in concepts. If you are a really successful traditional calligrapher, you could easily use the computer or technical programs for designing typefaces. It’s just the matter of understanding all angles.

On Al-Wissam Style

Let me just clarify something that is very important. First of all, I didn’t name it Al-Wissam style. It started in 2003 when I was working at a design agency in Dubai. It was the second year I moved to Dubai. I moved at the end of 2002 and after 3 months I started working as a graphic designer and calligrapher at a design agency. I was responsible for anything related to Arabic calligraphy and typography. 

One day a client asked me to design a one-word logo type and I was told not use the traditional scripts. In the Arab world, the use of traditional scripts in logos is very popular. There was no such thing as modern calligraphy, or contemporary logos, in 2003 there was nothing like that. So I decided that I am going to use my knowledge of all the styles I know and my knowledge of letter forms and started to design the work. I really liked the result. Although the full logo project didn’t go and the client changed the name, and they dropped the whole concept. But for me, that word I designed was the seed that started the whole style of Al-Wissam.

So, I continued using that style to finish the whole alphabet. I started designing the full alphabet in this new style, but it took me from 2003 to 2009, so all these 6 years I never used the style as a calligraphy art. You will never see a piece produced from me as a fine art piece, or ink on a paper. Most of the stuff you will see is all graphic design and logos. 

In 2009, I participated in a show in Dubai called Basmala. I produced 4 pieces in Al-Wissam style and that was the beginning of the style. It was a hit. People found the style to be harmonious and aesthetically beautiful. It is not an evolution of Sunbuli script according to what some believe, it has very little similarity. If you look closely there’s only 2 percent similarity. People started naming it Al-Wissam style, but I am not happy with the name. I feel the name could be something else maybe I will it change it one day.

How did you come into calligraphy?

What triggered me was my art teacher who was a calligrapher himself. He was a friend of the famous Iraqi calligrapher, late Hashem Mohammad al Khattat or Hashem al-Baghdadi, who died in1973. In the Arab world, almost every single calligrapher studied his book. In fact, I would say, my first teacher, besides my art teacher, was this book, which my father bought for my brother in the 80s. My brother didn’t continue with the book so he gave it to me. 

In art class, we used to draw pictures of war. This was during Iraq-Iran war, and so we used to draw war scenes. We weren’t drawing landscapes, we used to draw things like planes, missiles, and bombing.  So one day our art teacher said to us that instead of drawing those things, we will do some calligraphy today and he started writing with the chalk some letters in Ruqa'a. From then on, I was from that amazed with calligraphy, that has captured me all my life. 

Your favorite calligrapher

I can’t name one. For thuluth, I look at 4 or 5 Turkish calligraphers, I just collect the beauty of each one. I like Halim. In Turkey they say, Sami (Efendi) is the end, but I see Halim as an evolution of Sami because there are some letters Halim did better than Sami. So Halim, Hamid, Nazif, Sami, and Hakki, I would say are my top five historical calligraphers. This is in terms of Thuluth Jali. From the modern ones, Davut Bektas is my favorite. Davut represents to me the continuity of Nazif and Halim school. But to be honest, I love all the calligraphers and respect all the calligraphers. I like modern calligraphers, I like painters, I think everyone is doing something unique. I learn from everyone. I love art in general, I like painting, graphic designing, typography, anything to do with art and letter forms.

Advice for students like us

As a student, you need to practice, but nowadays it’s not easy to practice every day. The most important thing is to look at good examples of calligraphy because I believe 50 percent of practice is looking at good examples of the art. Look at examples and try to analyze them, because if you spend many years practicing and looking at really good examples, and you have talent, it will all come naturally even if you leave the practicing for some time. I am sure this is not what might other calligraphers say, but I tried it myself. I mean, I am not practicing these days. But, once I hold the pen I could write even better calligraphy. Because the more you look at good art and leave your work for a while, you have a better way of writing the letters. When I write any art piece, especially Thuluth Jali, I try not to finish it soon, I leave it for weeks, sometimes months then I come back and work on it because I can see where my mistakes are, and where I need to add. So looking at good example of art is something that is very important. Looking and trying to educate yourself of many aspects of calligraphy or design, because at the end calligraphy is the art of designing letter forms using calligraphy tools. It’s not about writing the ba like Shawqi or Sami, it is about the perfect form. We need to analyze why it is beautiful because there is a design aspect to lettering.

You can find out more about Wissam Shawkat's work on his website: http://www.wissamshawkat.com/

Gallery of Mr. Shawkat's work: