JEDDAH: Mawadah Muhtasib, an emerging Saudi artist who reversed the typeface of the Arabic language, is well on her way to becoming a prominent name in the global art scene.
From learning her mother’s technique of writing backward at age 13 to exhibiting in London and New York City, Muhtasib has generated international intrigue in the art of Arabic by creating the first reversed Arabic calligraphy, or calligraffiti, typeface.
Her messages are not only meant to be read, but are also designed to be deciphered. Engaging her audience with the challenge of decoding letters is a large part of experiencing the artwork itself.
“It’s about expanding your human capabilities into creating the impossible. And this is exactly what I have been trying to do,” she told Arab News in an exclusive interview.
Born out of a quest to layer the heritage of Arabic letters with innovative graffiti art methods, her work dares to be the first of its kind, granting her Dubai’s Art Bus competition award and a chance to show her work at exclusive showcases.
As graffiti art surged in popularity in 2013, Muhtasib experimented with mural painting alongside a novel group, hoping to develop a boundaryless form of art.
With a vision to modernize the traditional, she created a decorative typeface that mixed Arabic and Latin, written from left to right.
It’s about expanding your human capabilities into creating the impossible.
Muhtasib said: “We are so used to Arabic calligraphy when it comes to Thuluth calligraphy, Al-Kufi, Al-Naskh, and so on, and we just read that way and pass it on.
“When I’m doing my Arabic calligraphy, people sit and stare at my work for hours trying to figure out what these letters are, and the moment they realize it’s Arabic, they start to analyze and see all these letters in a different form that we as Arabic speakers are not used to.”
The Arabic language is one of the richest art forms, the artist says, but in modernity, it is difficult to appreciate the depths of something that has become so ordinary.
The goal is not only to get the viewer to read but to actively reflect on the beauty and form of each stroke and letter within the alphabet.
Muhtasib now passes on her craft through community workshops exclusively for women, most recently at Saudi’s largest light-based festival, Noor Riyadh.
“In my workshops, I do not teach people to write in reverse … I’m basically giving you the key of how to use the tools of starting to practice in the form of Latin calligraphy,” she said.
As soon as students understand the anatomy of the font family, Muhtasib introduces slanted brushes, layering techniques and stroke pressure. From the first session, students are sent home with a new creative form of expression. "The soul of a person is laid out on a page," she said.
Writing in reverse is not new; the artist’s mother passed down the habit after having to write backward to maintain privacy at work. Alongside that, she passed down her passion for creative innovation.
While most calligraphers in the Kingdom were mimicking Western methods, Muhtasib, at 16 years old, was inspired and encouraged by Tunisian artist eL Seed and Saudi Moroccan artist Shaker Kashgari.
“I took that trick that my mom taught me years ago on how to write and then I changed it into a decorative typeface,” she said.
The concept was designed to preserve the rich heritage of the Arabic language. For foreigners, it offers a chance to engage in the language and learn its history.
“This is Arabic calligraphy in reverse that I took, improved, adjusted and made into a different form. But viewers will also wonder how it actually looked like (originally) and this will make a lot of people go in-depth and learn more about Arabic calligraphy,” Muhtasib said.
The philosophy behind the Typeform has gained interest from international luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Carolina Herrera, Montblanc, Sephora and more, resulting in several collaborations.
Muhtasib urges creators to push the boundaries of art and culture.
With calligraphy, “your sky’s the limit,” she said.