Calligrapher Ruh Al-Alam discusses his contemporary approach to an ancient artform

Ruh Al-Alam studied design at Central Saint Martins in London. (Supplied)
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Updated 12 June 2020

Calligrapher Ruh Al-Alam discusses his contemporary approach to an ancient artform

LONDON: ‘The pens have been lifted, and the pages have dried.’ (At-Tirmidhi, 2516) 

This saying from the Hadith has been an inspiration for contemporary calligrapher Ruh Al-Alam, he tells Arab News. 




‘The pens have been lifted, and the pages have dried.’ (At-Tirmidhi, 2516) 

“The reference to the pens and inks resonated with me. This saying refers to the religion being complete — to the fact that Islam has been given to the people and there is nothing more to give; there is nothing more to be taught. There is no better way to present this message than through calligraphy,” he says. 

A British artist of Bangladeshi descent, Al-Alam studied design at Central Saint Martins in London. After graduating, he spent several years in Cairo learning Arabic and studying calligraphy with esteemed teachers.

And while the message of the inspirational hadith that so inspired him may apply to Islam, Al-Alam’s work suggests that his chosen art from still has plenty to give. He sees calligraphy not as a calcified art but something present, alive and relevant. That is reflected in his own style, which has led to collaborations with major brands and organizations including Netflix, the BBC, the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, and Sony. 

“When Sony launched the PlayStation Portable they used Arabic calligraphy to appeal to different audiences,” he says. “They wanted to use something unique to differentiate themselves from others in the market.” 

His desire to make Islamic art accessible and current has been at the heart of his development as an artist. 




This artwork is by Ruh Al-Alam. (Supplied)

“I don’t want to restrict the use of calligraphic arts to just the traditional — I want to apply them in ways that are less common,” he says. “For example, early on when I wanted to decorate my home with artwork, I wanted to put something up that was more spiritually focused. That’s where Islamic art came in. I wanted to make sure I did something that reflected my faith, but couldn’t find anything that I could put up in a more contemporary home that reflected the identity of myself and my family.” So he applied his own imagination. “One God Allah” is a perfect example of Al-Alam’s modern take on the ancient art.

“I wanted to create an emotive piece with a lot of texture and to keep it really simple with strong, contrasting colors. You don’t often see red with a contrasting black or brown color — that’s the contemporary element,” he explains. “I am saying that a calligraphic work doesn’t need to be black ink on a white sheet — it can be different. An important element to consider is where the artwork will be displayed. It could be in a beautiful contemporary home or a workplace, but it is designed to be striking.”




This artwork is by Ruh Al-Alam. (Supplied)

Al-Alam has also incorporated other items used or worn on a daily basis by devout Muslims into his work. He found that traditional prayer mats did not suit his home, so he created a limited edition of contemporary designs, which have proved so popular — even though they are expensive — that he is planning a new series in leather. 

“I was tired of the regular wool-pile prayer mats — many are really badly designed and some do not follow Islamic artistic tradition,” he says. “Also, they don’t fit the lifestyles that a lot of people lead. I always like to leave my prayer mat open so I can leave it in the corner and go back to it. People want minimalist designs in different materials that adhere to Islamic art traditions and suit the design of their homes better.

“I charge a lot more for my prayer mats but they are something you can cherish and they became an instant hit. We sold out right away in the first year,” he said.




He found that traditional prayer mats did not suit his home, so he created a limited edition of contemporary designs. (Supplied)

He has also extended his application of calligraphy to the hijab in a one-off series. 

“Putting abstract calligraphy onto hijabs was a new idea at that time,” Al-Alam claims. “I wanted them to be practical but different. One of the things I had to make sure of was that the lettering on the hijab was not interpreted as being in any way religious, as scripture is not allowed on garments.”

Al-Alam explains that he has personal experience of being falsely accused of disrespecting religious writings. “About a decade ago, I designed some T-shirts and there was a problem in Egypt when a journalist claimed that I had put scripture on them — even to the point of getting a fatwah against me from an Azhari scholar. I then had to go on TV and refute him, at which point he acknowledged that he had not actually seen the T-shirts.” 

 Al-Alam has since built an international reputation and has received many honors — including the Islamic Economy Award for Islamic Arts, which he received from Dubai’s Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum in 2018 — in recognition of his pioneering work in contemporary Arabic typography and calligraphy. 




The artist’s prayer mats sold out right away in the first year. (Supplied)

His calligraphic script styles include Spirit, Jude and Latin-Arabi, while his innovative Arabic typography includes Kufica, Arabic Didot and Moda. His design agency, Archetype, specializes in Arabic work.

“Right now we are talking to a Saudi client for whom we are designing several websites. We have designed many different logos and identities for clients in Saudi Arabia. I have also been to the Kingdom for religious purposes — for the Hajj and the Umrah and for work visits,” he says, adding that he is very impressed with the burgeoning art scene in Saudi Arabia.

“Artists like Ahmed Mater are amazing and I also see a lot of young artists and calligraphers who are passionately creating work,” he says. “There are a lot of naturally gifted people who are now expressing their talent and when this movement comes to fruition over the next decade it will change how the art of the Middle East is perceived.”

 


Bollywood megastar Bachchan hospitalized with COVID-19

Updated 11 July 2020

Bollywood megastar Bachchan hospitalized with COVID-19

  • Affectionately known as "Big B", Bachchan shot to stardom in the early 1970s on the back of roles in huge hit movies such as "Zanjeer" and "Sholay"
  • Millions of Indians revere Bachchan like royalty, hanging on his every word and seeking his blessings

MUMBAI: Bollywood veteran megastar Amitabh Bachchan, 77, has tested positive for COVID-19 and been admitted to hospital in his hometown of Mumbai, he said Saturday on Twitter, calling for those close to him to get tested.
"I have tested CoviD positive .. shifted to Hospital," Bachchan wrote, saying his family and staff had already been tested and were awaiting their results.
"All that have been in close proximity to me in the last 10 days are requested to please get themselves tested!" he added.

His son Abhishek Bachchan, 44, said in a tweet minutes later that he had also tested positive.

The Bollywood actors were admitted to Nanavati Hospital in Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment hub, and several other members of the high-profile family were tested for the virus.

Affectionately known as "Big B", Bachchan shot to stardom in the early 1970s on the back of roles in huge hit movies such as "Zanjeer" and "Sholay".
His films still open to packed cinemas across India, but his new movie - comedy-drama "Gulabo Sitabo" - was released on Amazon's streaming service due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Bollywood recently resumed film shoots after a months-long hiatus following the imposition of a nationwide lockdown in India in late March.
But actors over the age of 65, such as Bachchan, are banned from set due to their vulnerability to the virus.
India's nationwide coronavirus toll rose Saturday to 820,916 cases - the third highest in the world - with 22,123 deaths.
Health workers have complained about severe staff shortages, with some senior doctors and nurses avoiding frontlines because of their risk of catching the virus.
As the death toll climbs, critics say the country is not testing enough - leaving many infections undiagnosed.
Millions of Indians revere Bachchan like royalty, hanging on his every word, seeking his blessings and congregating outside his Mumbai bungalow every year on October 11, his birthday.
The doyen of Bollywood is a keen user of Twitter, where he has 43 million followers, and his career has branched into television presenting, business and politics, as well as countless commercial endorsements.
Early in his acting life, Bachchan earned his reputation as India's "angry young man" for portraying violent heroes fighting an unjust system and injecting a new aggressive element into Bollywood movies, which had previously consisted of polite romances.
After some lean years, Bachchan bounced back spectacularly, largely due to his stint as host for the Indian version of the popular TV game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", which revived his artistic and financial fortunes.
According to local media, he was being treated at Mumbai's Nanavati hospital.