Qatari calligrapher Fatima Al-Sharshani collaborated with the Portland Street Art Alliance on an evocative Arabic script mural
“Because I have a passion for Arabic calligraphy, I feel that there is a relationship between me and the letters. When I cannot write something, the letters are sad, because for a long time I did not speak to them ”, explains Fatima Al-Sharshani, the calligrapher behind Endless / Endless, a mural she recently installed on Southeast Alder Street and 11th Avenue.
Endless / Endless is Al-Sharshani’s third mural. The project is coming to the Pacific Northwest through the Portland Street Art Alliance, in conjunction with an overseas cultural exchange program of the Qatar Museums Jedariart Initiative, which has helped recruit and select Al- Sharshani. His mural is part of a larger project: 2021 Qatar-USA Year of Culture, which celebrates the relationship between the two nations.
Al-Sharshani painted in a loose white hijab and casual shirts, both splashed with black pigment. Al-Sharshani balances a bucket of ink in one hand and wields textured brushes between stained fingers.
In the finished composition, the broad-haired strokes curl dark like the stuttering of static electricity on an open canvas. The painted segments begin with a firm hand and the tail gently into the next. Half of the circle is connected by a staggering pulse, the heartbeat of its lingering revolution.
At one point along the circumference, trailing shadows erupted into a cornucopia of letters and phonetics. Al-Sharshani chose to combine not words, but rather singular elements of the Arabic alphabet in the work, in order to create a sense of open interpretation. The symbols curl and swirl, as if caught in an ecstatic dance. A torrent of eloquent possibilities, Al-Sharshani’s meditative mural captivates the viewer to imagine a story with endless beginnings and endings.
Endless / Endless was written in the calligraphic style of Diwani. Al-Sharshani practices all calligraphic types, including Naskh and Thuluth (“the toughest,” she says), but chose this font because “Diwani is curvy,” she explains. “It helped express continuity and endless infinity. The circle has no end, it is a deep, deep, deep cycle. I merged the circle with the Arabic letters, to give it depth, like the powers that we all have within us.
Al-Sharshani wielded a bamboo feather for the first time just 10 years ago, after graduating from Qatar University. A long-time fan of Arabic calligraphy, she enrolled in workshops at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
In its origins, Arabic calligraphy was used to inscribe the Quran and represent the word of Allah. Fonts were rare and widely used in the 7th century. Over the millennia, complex artistic variations have evolved, each with its own rules and formal styles. There are now seven to eight different forms of Arabic calligraphy, as well as countless interpretations of classical forms. Art can be written on different media, with different inks, and even at different scales of shape and size.
Al-Sharshani spent the better part of seven years training for his mastery of each calligraphic style.
“A calligrapher must have strong letters,” she says. “I learned the classic rules very well and I did my best. Then I went modern.
As he speaks, Al-Sharshani’s voice is powerful and meaningful. She remembers spending hours on classical poems with her hand-chiseled pens, before moving towards more expressive abstractions. In his experiments with calligraphy, Al-Sharshani wrote with his fingers, a daily mop, and even water on a concrete floor.
Today, Al-Sharshani runs his own art business, Qaif Calligraphy. She leads workshops and creates orders for clients in Qatar and beyond.
While working on the mural, Al-Sharshani was surprised and proud that some Portlanders recognized the Arabic letters woven into his composition.
“My goal is for people to see the difficult beauty of Arabic calligraphy,” she says. For those who know Arabic, Al-Sharshani hopes that individual letters will turn into words through their gaze. “I would like them to feel that the work of art speaks to them and that they create their own story with this work of art.”
Even for those who do not know Al-Sharshani’s native language, Endless / Endless can inspire a slow feeling of endless potential. Like the ouroboros, an ancient reminder of relentless but rhythmic continuity, Al-Sharshani’s Loop reiterates that time is long and that the cycles of life and death are inextricably linked.
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