Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 4th February 2018

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Iraqi calligrapher conveys universal messages through Arabic script

Massoudy translates ancient proverbs and poems into Arabic.


Uplifling messages. Iraqi master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy at work. (October Gallery)

Uplifling messages. Iraqi master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy at work. (October Gallery)

LONDON - Iraqi master calligrapher Hassan Massoudy uses Arabic calligraphy to convey universal messages and wisdom from both East and West.

His latest solo exhibition – “Breath, Gesture and Light” at London’s October Gallery – is a fantastic explosion of colours – blue, red, green, gold, etc. – and their different shades used to create a large letter. The quotes are from a diverse range of writers, including poet Charles Baudelaire, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virgil and Ibn Arabi.

From Joseph Fort Newton (1876-1950), Massoudy choose: “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” From Rumi he chose: “Towards another land, a country where only light reigns.” More than 40 works on a white background with a white frame have been created using water-based pigments on paper.

Massoudy translates ancient proverbs and poems into Arabic. He uses colour and brush strokes. Bold swoops elevate the written word and bring movement to the letters and words, which seem to have wings. Gazing at the works and reading the quotations is like reading philosophy that has uplifting messages.

“I would like to transmit the noble ideas of the human being and his dignity,” Massoudy said. “That is the message of my art. Since the age of 15, I have written notes in my notebooks and copied quotations, poems, sayings and proverbs that touch me. The quotes are short but they evoke abstract images that I try to portray in my works.”

“When I work I choose from my notebooks the phrase that appeals to me, either according to my state of mind or following the news. I take a word from the sentence, the key word and I magnify it by reconstructing the word with a new, large geometric structure,” Massoudy explained. “Then I write the whole sentence in the Kufic style of Kairouan. The keyword is written in a style that is personal to me and the phrase in an old style, so I feel connected to the tradition.”

Even though he uses Arabic script, Massoudy said his message is universal.

“I have often noticed that people from all walks of life appreciate my work, even if they do not read Arabic,” he said. “In my work I try to enter into a dialogue with all. The quotations were written by men and women from the East and West, from antiquity to the present day. These are always phrases imbued with humanism, wisdom and poetry.”

He showed that affinity with a sentence by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941): “The East and West are ever in search of each other, and must eventually meet.”

“I hope that my work gives a positive image of the Arab-Islamic world. This is my greatest wish,” Massoudy said.

In a statement on Massoudy’s website, French writer Michel Tournier said: “What can be admired in Hassan Massoudy is the masterful use he makes of colours in his compositions. He has opalescent washes, flows of emerald, monochromes of beiges enriched with deep wood tones and sandalwood fragrances. This is a new era, which is then open to calligraphy.”

“Indeed, lovers of exoticism and antique may be disappointed. Hassan Massoudy is not the living fossil of the old Arabic calligraphy. He is an artist of our time. His art belongs to that very end of the twentieth century, despite the ancestral roots that he immerses in the tradition of the Orient,” Tournier added.

Massoudy’s new English-language book of works inspired by love poems from the Arab and Islamic world, “Calligraphies of Love” released in April 2017, is being sold in conjunction with the exhibition along with other books that describe the calligrapher’s creations.

His work is found in numerous public collections, including the British Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts; the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates; the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, Japan; the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; and the Musee du quai Branly in Paris.

Peace and tolerance, central themes of his work, led him to work with Amnesty International, UNICEF and other related organisations. Massoudy’s work was used as the primary promotional image for the British Museum’s 2006 exhibition “Word Into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East.”

Born in 1944 in Najaf, Iraq, Massoudy studied graphic design and fine arts in Baghdad. He enrolled at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was influenced by Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, in addition to Arabic masters.

After receiving his degree in 1975, he returned to calligraphy, employing classical styles in a newer and freer manner. Beginning in 1972, he toured Europe for 13 years with his “Arabesque” performance combining music, poetry and calligraphy.

Hassan Massoudy artwork