For the next few months our Art coverage will coincide with the holy months of Rajab, Shaban and Ramadhan. I want to take this opportunity to explore the deeper connotations of Islamic Art. This month we’ll be showcasing calligraphy. Traditional Islamic art is categorised by three forms: the word of God – Calligraphy, The Beauty of God – floral or Arabesque designs, and geometry – the Breath of God. I have been in conversation with Calligrapher Ruh al Alam, founder of Visual Dhikr, an Islamic calligraphic art project based on the use of art as remembrance. We discussed his motivations to use this art form as well as his fascination with creating and drawing.
How would you describe your work and what you do?
My work has evolved over the years, but I would typically describe it as calligraphic art inspired by spirituality, politics and society. Although not all of my work is in purely calligraphic form, nor is it simply just 2D, I have varied my work across both the digital mediums as well as recent exploration of sculptural forms.
You trained as a graphic designer at Centra St Martins Art school, what made you take the initial step from graphic design to calligraphy?
Graphic design involves the extensive study and love of typography. This, coupled with my own personal desire to surround myself with spiritual artwork led me to develop my own scripts. But after having moved to Egypt to study with traditional calligraphers, I received proper training to fully engage with Arabic calligraphy. Naturally this helped me develop my own script styles and now my own Arabic typographic works.
You describe your art as visual dhikr, why have you chosen this term?
The term came about when I began my early exploration of spiritual work, which was borne out of a desire to decorate my own space with work that I could appreciate. However, due to the lack of good available contemporary artwork that I felt resonated with me as a British Muslim. I was forced to attempt creating my own. So this phase of my work was essentially putting the concept of ‘dhikr’ (remembrance of the divine) into a visual form, so wherever you looked, it was a reminder.
Why Art? Why have you chosen creative expression as a way of life?
It feels the most natural way for me. Even though I did academically well in other areas, I always had the urge to create something new and of my own, whether it was crafting something out of toilet rolls or cereal boxes as a child and now designing on a daily basis. Art comes in many forms and it allows us to express visually what simply cannot be communicated by words. The emotions that are expressed by art forms vary from viewer to viewer, constantly bringing a sense of reflection and appreciation of craft or the content. In my work, I like to call it ‘Visual Dhikr’, as was the name of my early work, which is a constant reminder of The Divine.
As an artist and designer, there is a constant desire to create new things and that is no different with Arabic typefaces. Due to the lack of good available fonts in the Arab world (and the late up-take of the printing press), it means that often you are left with crafting your own fonts for new design projects. This is the case in my daily work at the design consultancy I founded called Archetype. I also want to push the stylistic boundaries of Arabic typefaces and calligraphy, always trying to create new approaches and contemporary offerings.
How do you use your work to engage new audiences?
Some of my recent work has been more generic in nature by not being explicitly spiritual, so as to appeal to a wider audience, I feel everyone can appreciate the artwork, whether they fully understand it or not. This is why some of my recent typographic work has been received much better than I expected by a mainstream non-Muslim audience and subsequently I have had my work published in a number of books and exhibitions. I believe my work now aims to be more universal, as the core spiritual message is universal.
Your work is inspiring. What do you hope people will take from your work?
I hope people are further inspired by my work. I know I get a lot of people creating work inspired by own and making variants used in various places. This is a way of acknowledging the influence of some of the work I suppose, although I’m not a big fan of the regular copyright infringement cases I have to deal with. I hope people take an appreciation of the messages in my work, where the focus isn’t on me and my personality, but on the aesthetics or the divine remembrance.
Your work visually is unique and unlike any other Arabic calligraphers I have come across. What (traditions/artistic movements) influences/informs your style?
I suppose my work is heavily influenced by many different factors, including my British upbringing, English and European design and art trends/movements. I particularly appreciate European Bauhaus, Japanese culture, calligraphy and typography and obviously contemporary design movements.
What is it that drives you to do what you do? What are your motivations as an artist?
I suppose you could say that I want to make a contribution in some way, both to people’s lives whether they have an artwork in their home or something to wider culture and our Islamic heritage. I want people to look back and be proud again about our visual and artistic tradition and what we do today informs the future development of all artistic outputs in some way.
Ruh al Alam is currently developing plans for an exhibition scheduled to take place in Bristol later this year. Organised by SalamShalom project, the event will be an interfaith Jewish-Muslim exhibition of works based on faith. Watch this space for further details.
He also will be exhibiting a selection of his work at The Grant Bradley Gallery in Bristol June 3 to July 3 as part of the Shared Spaces Festival 2016.