Known and practiced around the world, light calligraphy uses hand-held light and photographic techniques to capture movements of calligraphy within a real setting. Excited to be pioneer of a unique art blending words, 21-year-old female artist Khadija El Ghawas is bringing her new self-taught experience of modern calligraphy to Egypt. Interested in calligraphy since the age of 12, El Ghawas studies at the calligraphy school, and works as a professional calligrapher at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Calligraphy Center. In 2011, she won the first place in the "Revolution in Arabic Calligraphy Eyes" competition. Here she talks about how she started in this genre of the arts and its impact on women.
Bajec: When was your first encounter with light calligraphy?
El Ghawas: It was in April 2013, when I helped my friend, Amira Elsammak, with her graduation project ‘Arabic calligraphy and Arts institute.’ I was inspired by French artist and light calligrapher Julian Breton. One day, I was searching on the net about modern calligraphy art when I ran into a video showing Breton’s compositions, and discovered this combination of Arabic letters, light painting and photography. Something I hadn’t seen before in Egypt. So my friend and I decided to use this new technique for her project. We worked together by the name Wamda (‘spark of light’). After the project was completed, our collaboration was over. I now work independently.
Bajec: What drove you to this unusual type of art?
El Ghawas: It’s a good combination of physical exercise and drawing. I think of what I want to express, create my own calligraphy designs, scripts them with light and my body goes with that. I don’t have to use paper or colour paint. It’s very comforting and enriching.
Bajec: Light calligraphy has been practiced worldwide though it has only recently been introduced in Egypt. How does it fit in Egypt’s artistic scene?
El Ghawas: There are only about five light calligraphers in the world including myself. Recently, many cultural venues have invited me to come and perform publicly. Because my calligraphy art doesn’t need a specific setting or sophisticated equipment, it’s easy for them to accommodate.
Bajec: You are a female pioneer in this new artistic genre. Are women well placed to do light calligraphy?
El Ghawas: A woman strives to reach perfection in anything she does in a beautiful way. So I think women have a potential to excel in this type of art. Also, they are likely to perform well being used to doing exercise like yoga and aerobics.
Bajec: What effect do you think this art can have on women who practise it?
El Ghawas: This art is really about balance. The physical exercise is very useful in terms of what you aim to achieve. It's also the hardest part. So when you make that effort and reach that exact balance, you feel you’ve achieved the top of your capabilities with your body. Then, it’s like you have the power to do anything after your practice session. It’s very fulfilling and powerful. I feel positively influenced by light calligraphy. It fills every dimension of my life.
Bajec: What do you express through your light drawing as a female artist?
El Ghawas: My compositions touch upon issues that we currently face in Egypt whether that’s related to politics, religion or society. I first decide what message I want to deliver, then I look for quotes from everyday life that illustrate my message, pick a key word from the quote, and write beneath the key word a statement to convey the message. For example, for Karama (‘Dignity’) I wrote: “For us democracy is a question of human dignity. And human dignity is a political freedom.” For Rabby (‘My Lord’) I wrote: “O God, all praise and gratitude is to you alone.”
What I really want to achieve through my art is to deliver beautiful messages with light whereby I can enlighten anyone in his or her life.
Bajec: As a woman, do you feel encouraged or challenged in doing light calligraphy?
El Ghawas: When people see me performing on the streets, some of them are curious to know what I’m doing. Some others are judgemental and don’t think I fit in this. They see my outfit and the hijab, and they put me in a box, which I don’t like. Based on this common perception, I tend to get negative comments. Especially at the moment, the big talk around the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over in the Egyptian society. So a lot of people will look at my appearance and think I’m a pro-Brotherhood supporter, they won’t accept me as a human being or for my art.
When I talk to them, show them photos on my camera and explain what I’m doing, their faces change expression, they become interested and start asking questions. It’s a great feel. The most powerful part is that moment you see people’s looks changing.
Bajec: This new calligraphy is a distinctive mixture between Eastern and Western cultures. Do you find any symbolism that applies to Egypt and women?
El Ghawas: It’s like a beautiful girl who wants to ride a bicycle, however she lives in a closed box due to family restrictions and conservative traditions. One day, she sees another girl from a different country who’s also beautiful and, unlike her, is not restricted by family or social norms. The former girl is then empowered by the latter, and finally decides to ride a bicycle. It’s the same with light calligraphy as a new freeing experience. Through my compositions, I add modern technology to traditional calligraphy so anyone from any part of the world can understand it.
Bajec: What part of the light drawing process do you enjoy?
El Ghawas: The physical work is the most demanding, tiring part. But it’s also the most important one, which I enjoy a lot. Once I decide which words I’m going to use, I devise the shape of the letters, write them down in the seven calligraphy types I know. Then, I practice drawing my calligraphy on air countless times for 15-20 minutes, in a defined space, in order to finally perform it perfectly for one minute with light and capture the work in a photo shot.
Viewing the image on camera, seeing the final result is the other part I like the most.
As for the settings, I search for good locations at night where I can take photos and capture my calligraphy design pieces with light.
Bajec: Do you have future plans?
El Ghawas: I have lots of plans, there are many big art events running in Cairo. However, because I live in Alexandria and I’m third year student now, I have little spare time to travel back and forth. I’m hoping to take part in upcoming events in the summer. I’m hungry of opportunities!