Islamic calligraphy, with its long history of development, has had a great impact on contemporary designs and modern artists. These artists extend the calligraphy’s usage while keeping it as the main motive in their fields of art, whether it is architecture, painting or even sculpture.
Maysoon Masalha from Jordan is one of these artists who developed a distinctive technique for shadow sculpture with her artist husband, Bassam Al Selawi, interpreting calligraphy in a modern and exciting way.
Timea Csányi: First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself as an artist and your relationship with art.
Maysoon Masalha: I can say that I was born with a passion for art. I always loved drawing and got so much support from my art teachers at school and from my mother who used to provide me with everything I needed to become an artist. In addition, the positive reaction of the people around me seeing my work was what made me finally decide to study art at Yarmouk University of Jordan and start my journey to become an artist.
After graduation, I taught art at private schools, but I did not feel that this was where I wanted to be. Then I moved to teach Palestinian refugees in United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools. Despite many challenges and the circumstances of poverty these students live in, I loved teaching them art and helping them overcome difficult issues like having learning disability or being quiet and introspective. Art helped them open up and become more communicative and extroverted. I believe that art is a cure for some learning difficulties and has a positive influence on both the students and the community. Teaching these children gave me an experience I could not have had in any other place. I will never forget the smile on their faces; it meant a lot to me.
TC: For a year and a half, you have been living in Abu Dhabi. What made you move there and what does UAE give you as an artist?
MM: I moved from Jordan to Abu Dhabi for several reasons. The first is to live with my husband and my kids together as one family, because Bassam previously moved to Abu Dhabi to work. The other reason was to live in a new country and have new experiences. Artists usually do not like routine; they always look for adventures and new opportunities.
Here, I work as Art Craft Manager in UAE’s best art complex which is Abu Dhabi Art Hub that provides a huge platform for artists around the world. It allows us to meet lots of artists and new guests each month and gives me new experiences, knowledge and expertise. Of course, not only do I work with the administration of the hub, but I participate as an artist, too. Art Hub provides us with a great opportunity to showcase our artwork at an international level.
Actually, I don’t call myself a professional artist. In my opinion, the audience is who decides if I am good enough to be a professional artist. I am just expressing my feelings by using different materials in a way that makes me feel good about myself, and art is a tool for me to communicate these feelings to the audience.
TC: You and your husband, Bassam Al Selawi, who is an artist, too, have an amazing project called “shadow art” which is basically the combination of modern sculpture techniques with Arabic calligraphy. Can you tell us how the idea was born, where you get your inspiration from for your pieces and what are the tricks and secrets which make it that unique?
MM: Since I met Bassam in the university, we have been carving and have a great passion for sculpture. But concerning our religion of Islam, which forbids portraying anything that has a soul, we started to think more about doing something that we feel passionate about, that is in accordance with our religion and that our culture accepts and likes. That created the basis of our shadow art.
When we sculpt, we usually get inspiration from traditional Arabic calligraphy which we also adore. Since we always look for other artists’ experience on the internet, we found out about shadow artists and what they are doing. We liked the idea a lot and decided to combine this shadow art with Arabic calligraphy and modern sculpting techniques. After many experiments and discussions, we came up with a concept which is totally unique and original. A wall sculpture gives the basis of it which is formed by three-dimensional sculpted words of Arabic calligraphy. Looking at it from different angles is already an interesting experience, but when we project a spotlight on it, a particular shadow appears. Perhaps one of the most unique things about this artwork is the way these sculptures and the shadow all seem to relate one to another.
We start by doing sketches for an idea that we have discussed. After deciding how the sculpture and shadow will be, we start forming the clay with the spotlight on, sculpting and drawing the shadow at the same time. After finishing the sculpture, we make a rubber silicone mold and then cast it with resin to make more than one copy. Each sculpture is signed, numbered, and a certificate that comes with it is also signed by the artist.
There are no tricks; it needs only hard and intensive work, along with some creativity and experience.
TC: Which is your favourite piece of art among your own art pieces and why?
MM: It is certainly the “Empty Peace” sculpture which represents a girl holding a palm leaf. This girl-like figure embodies colonialism, and its hollowness from the inside stands for the fake peace of the world. It was shown at the Beirut Art Fair and now is in Abu Dhabi Art Hub’s gallery.
TC: What have you achieved so far in the field of art?
MM: Before university, I received two awards from the Ministry of Education in Jordan. I have had approximately 23 solo and group exhibitions so far, but certainly being part of Abu Dhabi Art Hub is now the biggest reward.
TC: That means that art is gaining popularity in the Gulf? How do you see people welcoming art in general there?
MM: Although the renaissance of art in the Middle East hasn’t arrived yet, there have been many initiatives and projects (like establishing Abu Dhabi Art Hub, the first artist community in the UAE) to increase awareness of the importance of art. I see that the Ministry of Education is working hard to increase that awareness, too. Art here is not as popular as in Europe, but it is getting on the right track.
TC: What are your recent projects and plans for the future?
MM: A recent event I am in is as one of the 30 exhibiting artists is the 1st International Historical Memory Festival which is a creative and cultural journey based on the history of the 60’s and 70’s, encompassing the pre- and post-unification years of the UAE. It is organised in the Art Hub Liwa, which is a staging ground for epic festivals in the city of Liwa, that provides a platform for cultural and artistic exchange on a grand scale.
As I love creating artworks that have identity and uniqueness, we are also working on a new project. It is still at its initial stage, but we hope that it will be very distinctive, combining physics and art with beauty and functionality.
You can find Maysoon’s shadow art on Instagram:
Or on Abu Dhabi Art Hub’s website: www.adah.ae/
Timea Csányi is a reverted sister from Hungary living in Egypt with her husband. She works at Onislam.net as counselling editor of the family section; she is a freelance writer and art journalist in Hungarian and English, and an active blogger.