As we enter Ramadan, it’s only befitting to share with you an artistic talent that was inspired by the Arabic language and the religious writings in the Holy Quran. FACT’s Shabana Adam talks to UAE-based artist Zahra Gulraiz about her contemporary take on traditional Arabic calligraphy…
Calligraphy has been a part of the Islamic art world for many centuries, however, this sophisticated form of art has also appeared in other cultures, including Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mayan and more, with many incorporating it in their scriptures and books. Still, calligraphy remains an intricate artistic style that has been used to a much greater extent in the Arab world, in wonderfully diverse and imaginative ways that have taken the written word from pen to paper, to canvas, to the streets, the city walls, and beyond.
For these and many other reasons, calligraphy has become somewhat of a symbolic feature of Islamic art. Its premise often lies within Arabic writing, whereby the end result is the balance between transmitting a text and expressing its meaning through a formal visual code. This is also the very reason why calligraphy is both a most beautiful and powerful art form, having been developed and adopted by traditional and modern-day artists to share their views, messages and interests. For us, 27-year-old Zahra Gulraiz is one such artist. Her childhood with family as well as her religious background and deep connection with the Arabic language has inspired Zahra in her artistic pursuits.
“While my peers in kindergarten chased each other, rode their bikes, played with barbie dolls or read their books, you would find me wandering the halls looking at the paintings on the walls,” Zahra reminisces. “As I grew older, my father inspired me a great deal. We would spend our free time painting my furniture pink or making 3D art installations. I think my Dad was one of the biggest reasons why I have always been inclined towards art,” she adds.
Zahra’s other significant guidance came from Arabic writing, which is also the main influence for calligraphy too. Many Muslim communities and cultures hold the Arabic language in great esteem for it was the language in which the Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. “As we lived in a practicing family, the Quran was a vital part of my life,” Zahra says. “After years of learning and getting accustomed to the Arabic text in the Quran, I gained a strong connection with the Arabic language. “I fell in love with the structure of each alphabet. As I made my way through college, I found myself drifting away from the norm of creating portraits and landscapes, and more towards the beauty that lay within the Arabic text,” she explains.
While not all calligraphy is religious in content, Zahra uses sacred quotes or verses from the Holy Quran and incorporates these into her artwork, in a way which is attractive, endearing and uplifting. “For example, one of my favourite pieces features the verse from the Quran: ‘Verily, after every hardship comes relief’,” she tells us. “I made the canvas with bright and bold colours, which lifts the viewer’s spirits even before deciphering the translation of the words.”
Zahra describes her artistic style as “a contemporary take on traditional Arabic calligraphy.” She explains: “I use solid, vivid colours against the curves and edges of calligraphy to create an illusion of abstract art. Each painting signifies a certain theme or has a meaning to it, even though it might only look like a bright painting.”
So, what is it about art that grips her? “Oh gosh, everything!” she says. “I love how each piece of artwork speaks to the viewer in different ways. I love visiting art galleries and viewing a piece of artwork, looking at each stroke and getting a sense of the artists’ feelings. It lets you escape reality and look through the eyes of others. “I have come across some people who don’t necessarily enjoy viewing art, but they all have something to say about it. Art has its way to make people talk, and I love that,” she adds.
Aside from calligraphy, Zahra also ventures into pop art style and geometry, with a great level of enthusiasm for symmetry. More recently, she has been fascinated by the art of mandala (a spiritual pattern and ritual symbol found in India, representing the universe).
“I joined Instagram and saw some amazing artists posting some of the most intricate mandalas I have ever seen,” Zahra recalls. “My first mandala was inspired by the fact that I had a compass, pencil, and some time to kill. It started as a doodle but ended up being so much more. The aspect that I love most about Mandalas’ is the freedom you have with your designs. It’s quite therapeutic too!” Zahra’s art has been featured on Eid greeting cards, and she’s currently looking to create a colouring book for adults, alongside putting her designs on handbags and stationery too.
“This looks like a promising year for me,” she says, excitedly. “I would like to have more gallery shows, gain more exposure, and maybe even launch my own clothing line… Bring it on, 2016!” When your enthusiasm and artwork speaks for itself, in the way that Zahra’s does, there really is no limit to what can be achieved.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MATERIALS, TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES USED IN YOUR WORK…
I am forever in love with acrylic paints. I love the texture and how I am able to mould the paintings to have rough and jagged surfaces. If I want an even texture, acrylics give me that too. I was introduced to a number of mediums in University, but somehow I would always lean towards acrylics. I have a habit of keeping all my old paintbrushes (some of them are over 10 years old!) and I’m a massive fan of Winsor and Newton products. As for my techniques, it’s a secret! But I can tell you that I like to sketch out my ideas beforehand to get an idea of how the dimensions of the text would fit within the frame.
YOUR ADVICE FOR YOUNG BUDDING ARTISTS…
The most important advice I can give, no matter how generic it sounds, is to be true to who you are. You don’t need to change your artistic style to what is “in” at the moment. Similarly, if you see an artist who is getting recognition for a certain style of work, you don’t need to copy them in order to gain the same recognition. Art is about a feeling, a moment, it’s about you. And if you manage to stay true to yourself, the satisfaction you will feel will triumph over the approval of a thousand people.
GO: Follow Zahra on instagram (@zahragulraiz) to view more artwork
and connect with the young artist.