Farah Behbehani, the artist fascinated by Arabic letters!
The cover guest for this issue is a Kuwaiti artist, who reflects with her ambitions and education Kuwait’s modern artistic identity.
Farah has enhanced her passion for art by learning and studying, then she began working with the support of two parents who encouraged her in her career and helped her shine.Farah entered the world of Arabic calligraphy and considered it a mirror for the heritage of her country, so she turned the rich Arabic poems into rich linear expressions. And because Farah is an example of young people who have mastered an art that revived the culture and heritage, we had this interview with her.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, your upbringing, your education, your studies and your work?
As a young girl, my family was forced to leave Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion in 1990. I grew up in Switzerland, where I studied and graduated from the International School of Geneva in 1999 and I got a BA in Mass Media and Advertising (with honor) and a BA in Communications from the University of Boston in 2003. After that I obtained a Masters’ degree in Arts of Communication Design that I completed in June 2007 with distinction from the San Martins College. I currently live and work in Kuwait as an artist and a freelance designer.
Did you grow up in a home that encourages your artistic sense?
Yes very much, although my parents do not work in the creative field, but they were avid art connoisseurs and collectors throughout their entire lives. They had always encouraged my artistic practices and attempts and would proudly boast any project I work on. I am very grateful for their presence and support and for their constant encouragement to follow my dreams.
Tell us your story with design and calligraphy, how did it all begin?
I was fascinated by Arabic letters and calligraphy in 2006 while working on my master’s degree in St. Martin’s Central School of Art and Design in London. I was looking for an inspiration to design the cover of my thesis book and I started reading the translations of oriental legends, what stimulated a passion inside me to work on a project that carries my country’s rich culture and heritage.
I was especially attracted to Farid Al Din Attar, and to the poem “the Birds Conference”, a 12th-century mystical poem that tells the story of birds in the world searching for their legendary king. And while I was focusing on discovering the historical methods, I turned to the Arabic calligraphy and was passionate about its endless expressions. I had to clarify the calligraphy in my book and my work, so I began to learn the existing methods from the text known as Jali Diwani, which were appropriate to Attar’s poem – birds.
What kind of self-expression this art has given you?
I learned that letters are the essence of language and thought, representing a meaning beyond their primary form. As an expression of ideas, they can lead to abounding possibilities, taking us through interpretations of language hidden between the alphabetical letters.
Can you define the art of calligraphy in your own words, and your personal view towards it?
The art of writing holds a sacred place in Islamic culture, as it was the tool used for preserving the divine Revelation. Islamic calligraphy originally developed as an art form for the purpose of copying the Quran and spreading the word of God (Allah). Yet the practice was carried throughout the centuries, and developed into an incredible artistry, encompassing all forms of craftsmanship.
As the great mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi said: “The letters are a nation among the nations.” Modern calligraphy has transported this practice to another path by breaking the traditional rules of this artistic form, thus creating an instrument of open artistic expression with endless possibilities. Consequently, each character can create its own narrative, and weave together different characters, relationships and ideas, so you think that these letters or message dance on a canvas.
Tell us about the book “Birds Conference”, explain to us the concept of this book and what made you work on it?
Written by the Persian Sufi, Farid Al-Din Attar, “The Bird’s Conference” is a 12th-century mystical poem that tells the story of birds in the world in a quest for its legendary king. In my book, I executed the text in the Jali Diwani script, by creating a design system to enable readers from different cultures and backgrounds to understand the meaning, the speech and the flow of the poem. This system is the first of its kind that aims at giving non-Arab readers a greater look at the complexities of Arabic writing.
My book was published by Thames and Hudson in London in June 2009. Illustrations of this work were presented at the Arab Week of the European Parliament in Brussels in November 2008, as well as in Arabesque: The Arts of the Arab World Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington in February 2009. The book was officially launched in May 2009 by Dar Al Fonoon in Kuwait and continued to London, Jeddah and New York.
Where can we find this book?
Unfortunately all the copies have been sold a year after its launch, but I am looking forward to publish a second edition soon and I hope it will be available on the market by 2018.
We heard that you are working on a new book, tell us about it?
I am currently working on a book that I authored and designed, and which focuses on the visual development of the Arabic letter “haa’ ” This book is part of a larger project created for King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the title of “In the presence of haa’ “. The project is based on a wooden installation of 125 pieces with a book showing the evolution of the Arabic letter form (h / haa’) throughout the History of Islamic Calligraphy.
The symbolism of the letters has created an extent limited to the Arabic alphabet, which pertains to both the religious book and the Sufi scriptures. And according to the order of the ancient Semitic alphabet (also known as Abjad), the letter “haa’” represents the numerical value 5, and was drawn in the early Quran as a symbol for the designation of every five verses. Moreover, the message is a symbol of air, classified by the great mystic and poet Ibn Arabi as “a renewable air message”. These 125 wooden letters follow a series of visual relations, while each fifth letter is symbolically covered in a sheet of gold, drawn from Quranic illumination. The book documents the visual development of this message, as described in the following five categories: Islamic manuscripts, architecture, ceramics, metal works and Quranic illumination.
Are there any other projects you would like us to highlight?
One of my biggest projects was the designing of shading structures or “hijab” that encircle seven buildings to develop the city of Sabah al-Salem in Kuwait. Customized templates called “shadow of knowledge” are typical modules to create intertwined and interlocking patterns that are used as a “veil” or shading structures to envelop each of the seven buildings.
The buildings are: The Pearl – Lobby Hall, Cube – University Library, Central Administration Building, Convention Center, Cultural Center, Visitor Center and Grand Mosque.
Written designs are created with verses of poetry, prose or Quran related to education and culture, in a way that reflects the function and shape of each building. The verses rely on the historical references of Islamic literature and create a quick play of light and shadow through a maze of letters drawn from important references in the history of the Arab / Islamic world. The templates are designed as a calligraphic unit to allow for visual development and versatility.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from everywhere; all you have to do is to look. Follow your intuition, let your imagination soar and create.
You are a wife and a mother, what role plays your little child in your career and your artistic journey?
Becoming a mom has been the most incredible and honest experience in my life. There is no doubt that it is challenging to balance being a hands-on mother, a worker as well as pursuing my dreams as an artist and designer, but I would not change that for anything. Children are the greatest blessing. My son brought a lot of joy, and motivated me to continue in the inspiration to be the best copy of myself. And as the British designer Alan Fletcher once said: “Art and design isn’t something you do … it’s a way of living.”
What is the phenomenon happening in Kuwait during this period and raising your attention?
It is great to see the Kuwaiti cultural scene bloom today, from concerts, orchestras and theater performances at the Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Center, to the varied program at Al Shaheed Park, and local forums such as the annual Nuqat Conference. There had certainly been a positive transformation in the artistic and cultural scene in Kuwait. Not to mention the impressive annual cultural program at Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah, as well as countless galleries hosting both local and international artists. There is much to see and do at the moment but it is always difficult to find time to keep up with the latest developments.
What do you say to the rising young artists?
Do not stop learning; the creative process is a journey, adopt the challenges that lead you to progress.
Artists who have influenced your career?
The person who has had the greatest impact on my career is my teacher and dear friend Khaled Al-Saie. I have been his apprentice since 2006, I studied a range of font styles, and I had a deep discussion with him about Persian and Arabic poetry, and Sufi writing. I am very grateful to him for guiding me consistently through the wondrous extents of Arabic letters.