A Love for Letters

A Love for Letters


The Iraqi calligrapher, painter and sculptor, Sabah Arbilli, talks to Artscoops about the influence that roots, border crossings and fresh starts have had on his work



What inspired you to use calligraphy in your work?


As a young student at school, I was always fascinated with the composition and rhythm of Arabic letters. I found them really beautiful, even though my understanding of their rules at that time was very simplistic. While at school in Iraq, I was often praised for my handwriting, which teachers used to describe as neat and pleasing on the eye. Encouraged by their words, I decided to work as a calligrapher during the holidays, taking on jobs such as doing signs for buildings and creating wedding cards. I was also studying civil engineering at this time, and the common links, such as the use of geometrical form, were evident to me.



Calligraphy and communication are inextricably intertwined. What are the common messages you are looking to convey through your work?


I usually need to be inspired by something to begin a piece of work, so I start off by using letters and words that have some sort of meaning for me. For example, if I’m working from a poem, I will think about the context and its meaning, using that as a starting point to plan and create a vision of colour, composition and ideas. My mind is a blank canvas until I translate a concept into a vision. I compare this process to a jigsaw puzzle, in which all the elements come together at the right time. Most artists have one style, but I like each of my pieces to be different from one another. I like to visualise them and interpret them differently.



How do you select which medium to use for a project? Do you begin with the medium or the idea?


I choose the medium for a project, depending on a variety of factors, such as the nature of the work, the theme I’m envisaging, whether the piece has been commissioned and space constraints, which will affect size and dimensions. Then I think about the best materials to use. I might start thinking about the medium beforehand, whether to go for canvas or sculpture, although I find that the choice tends to just click when the time’s right. It’s not something I plan – I rarely know what’s coming next.



You are known for constantly developing both technique and style in your work. Is this a conscious decision or a natural evolution?


It’s a very natural process that involves beginning a journey, but not knowing where or how it will end. My style is an ongoing evolution that involves discovery, enjoyment and experimentation. I want to make a statement in each of my exhibitions. In my show held in Kuwait last year, titled ‘Decisions’, all of the art was based on words from poetry. I wanted to explore the concept of how we decide which questions to ask and whether we can be sure that we’ve made the right decisions.


You’ve created several outdoor public art pieces. What specific challenges do these involve and what do you regard as the highlight of your career so far?


One of the main challenges on any commission is ensuring that everyone involved is happy with the final outcome. The sculpture on the Corniche in Qatar in stainless steel is the biggest piece I’ve done and I’m extremely happy with it. I worked on the piece on site in Australia, before it was shipped over and installed.



What are you currently working on?


I’m focusing on a solo exhibition that’s scheduled to be held in Bahrain next month, titled ‘Sorry’. I chose this theme in part because it’s such a powerful word. I wanted to explore the process of making mistakes, saying sorry and embarking on new beginnings.

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