Has­san Massoudy’s search for har­mony

The ac­claimed artist and cal­lig­ra­pher dis­cusses the ori­gins of his work and the decades of prac­tice lead­ing to his new book

Arab News - - Lifestyle, Art & Culture - Iain Akerman London CAL­LIG­RA­PHY

The Iraqi artist and renowned cal­lig­ra­pher Has­san Massoudy is at home in Paris qui­etly rem­i­nisc­ing. Now well into his 70s, and hav­ing not re­turned to Iraq for 50 years, he can be ex­cused the odd mo­ment of nos­tal­gia.

“When I was younger, I went on a trip with my mother to visit her brother, who was a preacher and a thinker,” he re­mem­bers.

“I looked at him in awe in his black clothes and large tur­ban as he wrote lit­er­ary phrases us­ing a reed pen. I didn’t know how to read at that time, but what at­tracted me was the black ink on the white pa­per. I used to see the Ara­bic let­ters as a set of pic­tures. I mar­veled at that sight.” He re­mem­bers, too, be­ing sum­moned to the front of his class when he was 10 years old. Ex­pect­ing the worst, he made his way to the front slowly, only to be praised for the qual­ity of his writ­ing. “I was over the moon when my teacher asked me to write in front of the other stu­dents in or­der for them to learn,” he says, pride still ev­i­dent af­ter all these years. “To­day, af­ter 66 years, I think that was the first time I wrote cal­lig­ra­phy in front of an au­di­ence — some­thing I have con­tin­ued to do all my life.” Massoudy has spent a life­time cre­at­ing art that, de­spite its break with tra­di­tion, con­tin­ues to ex­press the beauty of Ara­bic cal­lig­ra­phy. He has taken in­di­vid­ual let­ters and words, con­structed them as huge sculp­tural works, and de­vel­oped his artis­tic prac­tice through the in­creased use of en­ergy and speed. This has led to the cre­ation of texts with far greater char­ac­ter, he says, and to his own ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the im­por­tance of space. “Be­fore­hand, I thought that the let­ter was the only im­por­tant as­pect of cal­lig­ra­phy,” he says. “Now I re­al­ize that the space around the let­ters is an­other part of cal­lig­ra­phy — the let­ters and spa­ces must work to­gether in har­mony.”

Renowned for trans­form­ing po­etic texts into vi­brant works of art, Massoudy may have bro­ken with clas­si­cal cal­li­graphic tra­di­tion, but his sen­tences are pep­pered with ref­er­ences to old masters. In Is­tan­bul, he met the last of the great Ot­toman cal­lig­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Hamid Ay­taç, and stud­ied for a brief pe­riod of time at the Madrasat Tahsin Al Kho­toout in Cairo. As an ap­pren­tice in Bagh­dad, he spent hours with Hashem Al-Bagh­dadi, con­sid­ered the last of the clas­si­cal cal­lig­ra­phers.

In 1980, he went in search of the of­fi­cial body of work of Ibn Muqla, a vizier within the Ab­basid Caliphate and the first to cod­ify the prin­ci­ples of cal­lig­ra­phy in the 10th cen­tury. Al­though not a sin­gle line of Ibn Muqla’s work has sur­vived, Massoudy has doc­u­mented the cal­lig­ra­pher’s phys­i­cal legacy, in­clud­ing a small eight-page note­book in Cairo and an­other in the Na­tional Li­brary in Tu­nis. The former is a copy made some time in the 16th cen­tury.

“How do cal­lig­ra­phers from the past con­tinue to af­fect me? Their beau­ti­ful lines have lived for thou­sands of years, and as a cal­lig­ra­pher you want to con­tinue that. And as Jalalud­din Rumi says: ‘ What you are look­ing for is also look­ing for you.’”

Born and raised in Na­jaf, Massoudy moved to Bagh­dad in his late teens. The idea was to study at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts but he didn’t meet the en­try re­quire­ments, so turned in­stead to the cal­lig­ra­phers’ shops that could still be found in the city in the early Six­ties. The world he en­coun­tered there was pop­u­lated by a small group of cal­lig­ra­phers, “but it was gen­er­ous, open­minded, and un­afraid of the col­lapse of clas­si­cal meth­ods.” Al­though all of his work was in the world of ad­ver­tis­ing, he learned mul­ti­ple styles of cal­lig­ra­phy, in­clud­ing elab­o­rate forms such as Thu­luth and Di­wani, be­fore leav­ing for Paris in 1969. There, he en­rolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he pro­duced his first fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings and even­tu­ally formed what would be­come his own dis­tinc­tive prac­tice.

“In my cal­lig­ra­phy I re­flect my per­sonal state of be­ing — my hopes and my as­pi­ra­tions,” he says. “I empty my soul of all its con­cerns, pro­vid­ing my­self a state of in­ner peace. This is a state of equi­lib­rium be­tween the artis­tic process of the self and the hu­man com­mu­nity we are linked to. What can an artist do against the wars and the in­jus­tices faced by in­di­vid­u­als? I be­lieve that an artist can make their work hon­estly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the time, and there­fore a ben­e­fit for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. It’ll be for oth­ers to judge the qual­ity of the artist’s work, there­fore de­ter­min­ing its longevity.”

The words he draws upon for his work are those of oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly the writings of po­ets and philoso­phers, in­clud­ing Rumi, Khalil Gi­bran and the Per­sian mys­tic Al-Hal­laj. He also draws heav­ily on proverbs from around the world. In do­ing so, he not only cre­ates dis­tinc­tive works of art, but pro­motes a mes­sage of peace and tol­er­ance — two themes that are cen­tral to much of his work. That’s why words such as ‘love’ and ‘seren­ity’ are sprin­kled lib­er­ally through­out his work.

That body of work is ex­ten­sive, rang­ing from works on pa­per to the­atri­cal per­for­mances that com­bine mu­sic and poetry with the cre­ation of cal­lig­ra­phy live on stage. His first such per­for­mance was with the French ac­tor Guy Jac­quet and the Iraqi mul­ti­in­stru­men­tal­ist Fawzy Al-Aiedy — the trio toured for 13 years in the Sev­en­ties and early Eight­ies. A later col­lab­o­ra­tion with the chore­og­ra­pher Carolyn Carl­son and the Turk­ish mu­si­cian Kudsi Er­guner led to the cre­ation of “Me­taphore,” a ‘har­mony of mu­sic, dance and cal­lig­ra­phy.’

“When I find a po­etic verse, one that in­cludes an im­age that I can see per­fectly in my mind, I take its most beau­ti­ful words and spend days imag­in­ing the poet writ­ing those words and how to for­mally reach a new ex­pres­sion through the new con­struc­tion of a word,” Massoudy ex­plains. “I also try to think of what can be added to en­rich the paint­ing. For ex­am­ple, the use of col­ors, as I am a per­son who tries his best to achieve per­fec­tion. When I speak of per­fec­tion, my goal is to cre­ate some­thing that is as close as pos­si­ble to the vi­sion the poet had in mind. There­fore, I write the same word mul­ti­ple times in a dif­fer­ent size, even if it (dif­fers) just by a few mil­lime­ters.”

This cre­ative process was cen­tral to the cre­ation of “Cal­ligra­phies of the Desert,” pub­lished by Saqi Books this month. Draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the writ­ers and po­ets who ‘ lost them­selves in the mys­ter­ies of the desert,’ it is the end re­sult of var­i­ous trips un­der­taken by Massoudy and his wife Is­abelle to the deserts of North Africa. It was there that his cal­lig­ra­phy “took on the ochre, yel­low and pink hues of the set­ting sun” and his lines “closely par­al­leled the hol­lows of the dunes.”

Massoudy’s artis­tic vi­sion is a hu­man­ist one. He seeks to en­hance so­ci­ety and to el­e­vate cul­ture, us­ing in­spi­ra­tional words to “con­trib­ute mod­estly to public aware­ness.”

“Love, hap­pi­ness, hope and dig­nity,” he says. “All of these themes, and many oth­ers, are needed in this cur­rent time.”

My cal­lig­ra­phy re­flects my per­sonal state of be­ing — my hopes and my as­pi­ra­tions. I empty my soul of all con­cerns.

(Clock­wise from top left) Has­san Massoudy at work in his stu­dio; A piece that reads — ‘If I am made of earth, this lat­ter is my coun­try in its en­tirety, and all of hu­man­ity are my brothers’; Massoudy’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Ara­bic say­ing, ‘Knowl­edge stands at the high­est of all rank­ings.’

Im­ages sup­plied

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