September 11, 2023

Modern Art - Spotting Calligraphy Art in Doha

Qatar is an art lover's delight, not just because of its fantastic art museums and galleries that showcase art from the 7th century to today's modern art and works from internationally acclaimed artists to local talent. Nor is it just the festivals and events dedicated to the arts, or the support and development programmes, courses and workshops available to budding artists. Artistic culture vultures also love Qatar for its approach to public art.

All across Qatar, you can find art installations in public places, providing works for all to enjoy. From the country's international airport to the wilds of the desert, from the Metro Stations to parks, beaches and promenades, in hospitals, libraries, theatres, halls, squares and plazas, there are installations in so many places it is a delight to either seek them out on an art trail or to be surprised and amazed when you come across them unexpectedly. While many types of works are dotted around - sculptures, paintings, prints, murals and light installations - interactive or not, our favourite pieces are the calligraphic artworks that embody the nation's culture, traditions and heritage through modern eyes.

Calligraphic Art

It's hard not to love Arabic calligraphy; it's a hugely attractive, stylish form of writing, elegant, ornate and versatile. Developed as a script for transcribing the holy Qur'an in ancient times, Arabic calligraphy is revered as part of people's religious and cultural heritage. However, it is also a beautiful art form, with fluid lines, dots and flourishes that can express not just the written word but ideas, opinions, national identity or abstract thoughts through visual art.

Arabic calligraphy has been used for centuries, alongside arabesque motifs and geometrical designs, for decorative purposes in and on books, manuscripts, textiles, pottery and ceramics, coins and flags, and architecture and design using writing to construct lines and images. Nonetheless, in the 20th century, alongside the modern art movement, calligraphy art came into its own. Artists began to use Arabic calligraphy in abstract form and experimented with the possibilities of the script in contemporary art. The evolution of Arabic calligraphic art over the next few generations created a plethora of artists using the text in drawings, paintings, sculptures and many other contemporary visual art forms, including digital art, street art and graffiti (known as calligraffiti). Today, many artists focus on the abstract, using the text as inspiration or the written text within their works to convey spiritualism or specific messages - social, political or global issues. But some of the most stunning modern and contemporary art emerges, whichever style is used. Fortunately, if you live in Qatar or are visiting, the country has some great examples:

Finding Doha’s Calligraphy Art

You don't have to travel far to find calligraphy art in Qatar. There are many installations centred around Doha - though, at the rate Qatar is inaugurating public art, it may be a short time before you'll see examples of calligraphy art all over the country! But for now, check out the following:

Calligraffiti by El Seed

Image: Qatar Museums

El Seed is a French/Tunisian artist who uses Arabic calligraphy to inspire his works, to express the lives of the communities in which he works, and to share common messages about peace and unity. Most of El Seed's contemporary pieces, from paintings to sculptures, are in the calligraffiti style, which blends modern graffiti and street art with ancient calligraphic letterforms in an abstract way or one that conveys a specific message. El Seed's works can be found worldwide, including in Qatar's capital city, Doha.

In 2013, Qatar Museums commissioned El Seed to paint fifty-two modern art Arabic calligraffiti murals. The murals, each one around 700m in length, adorn underpasses that intersect the Salwa Road, which crosses Qatar from east to west, from Doha to Saudi Arabia. The vibrant, eye-catching designs, inspired by aspects of Qatari culture, brighten an otherwise functional location and are the epitome of the Doha cityscape - a metropolis that blends history, heritage and culture with modernity.

Location: Salwa Road, Doha

Location Map: Salwa Rd

Alfa by Jean-Michel Othoniel

Image: Shutterstock/Sriram Kumaran

Jean-Michel Othoniel, a French artist whose works can be found in gardens and historical sites worldwide, is best known for his sculptures and installations that interact with the landscapes or architecture that provide the backdrop to his pieces. Using modular elements, such as reflective bricks or beads, to create simple geometric patterns, Othoniel explores history and human emotions. In 2019, Othoniel was commissioned by Qatar Museums to create a prominent art piece to sit in front of the nation's newest museum, the National Museum of Qatar - a striking architectural masterpiece along the capital city's oceanfront Corniche.

Othoniel's 114-piece installation, ALFA, which rises out of an almost 900-metre-long lagoon in front of the National Museum of Qatar, pays homage to Arabic calligraphy. Each piece of the installation functions as an individual fountain. The fountains, designed using a myriad of black beads, resemble reeds (a traditional writing instrument used by Islamic calligraphers) transformed by their abstract nature to mirror typical calligraphic letters - an ode to an ancient skill has been passed down from generation to generation over centuries and symbolises one of Qatar's emotive cultural foundations. The fountains, turned on periodically, shoot water skywards, creating beautiful patterns that extend the fountains' reach and highlight the magnificent curves of the museum building beyond the lagoon. At night, the fountains are lit up against the blackness of the night and the bulk of the museum, creating a magical sight.

Location: Museum Park Street, Al Corniche, Doha

Location Map: National Museum of Qatar

Nearest Metro: National Museum Metro Station on the Gold Line

Wisdom of a Nation by Ali Hassan Al Jaber

Image: Esteva

Ali Hassan is a Qatar-born contemporary artist who creates Arab art in various styles, from drawing and painting to sculpture and installations. Originally a trained calligrapher, Ali Hassan began his self-taught artistic journey in the 1980s. Since then, his semi-abstract works, characterised by bright, bold colours or monochrome and combinations of calligraphic and figural forms, have been exhibited extensively at home and abroad. Many of Hassan's pieces focus on just a single Arabic letter, such as noon, as he strives to express the beauty, power and malleability of each of the 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. However, many will also know Hassan's famous pieces depicting the Arabian horse or date palms. In 2019, Hassan was asked to create something for the entrance of the awe-inspiring National Museum of Qatar, which opened that same year.

Today, guests at the National Museum are welcomed by the Wisdom of a Nation, an art installation inspired by historical poetry and the Qatar national flag. The installation, wrought from metal, comprises nine individual triangles, five painted white and four red, arranged top-to-tail in alternate colours to create a flowing piece. The triangular shapes mirror the serrated pattern on the Qatari flag - whose nine points were added to the banner on the country's journey to independence. At the same time, the colours represent the historic flag colours. Calligraphic patterns abstractly cut out of the metal sheeting belong to an excerpt from a poem by modern Qatar's founder, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, who was instrumental in the nation's fight for independence. Hassan's work exemplifies the links between Qatar's history and national identity, an ideal piece for a museum that seeks to educate on both themes!

Location: Museum Park Street, Al Corniche, Doha

Location Map: National Museum of Qatar

Nearest Metro: National Museum Metro Station on the Gold Line

Calligraphy Sculpture by Sabah Arbilli

Image: QUBlog

Sabah Arbilli is a British-Iraqi artist internationally renowned for his calligraphic art. As a master calligrapher, working in a variety of mediums, from painting to sculpture, Arbilli's works draw on the traditional form of Arabic letters and calligraphy and, working within the rules of this ancient art, present them in a unique, modern, contemporary style that expresses specific themes, concepts or ideas. Arbilli was invited to design a sculpture that reflects the country's history and heritage for Qatar's Corniche in 2014.

Arbilli's sculpture, located on the Corniche viewpoint in front of Al Bidda Park and with views straight across the Gulf to the towering array of skyscrapers in West Bay, is a stainless-steel creation of individual Arabic letters intertwined and piled skyward for nearly 25 ft. The calligraphic letters are taken from an excerpt of a famous Qatari poem by the nation's founder, H E Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani; "amongst the sultans, I stood out; as a lanneret* floating over the mountain peaks". The monument stands as a representation of Qatar's history, culture, art and modernity. It is a stunning feature, catching the light and reflections of the sea and landscape surrounding it, one of Doha's most prominent promenades.

(*a male falcon)

Location: Al Corniche (adjacent to Al Bidda Park), Doha

Location Map: Calligraphy Sculpture

Nearest Metro: Corniche Metro Station on the Red Line

A Blessing in Disguise by Ghada Al Khater

Image: Facebook

Ghada Al Khater, a Qatari-born ARTtoonist most well-known for her graphic art, is a multimedia artist whose work is often aligned with satirical political commentary in the form of cartoons, illustrations and sculptures. Many of Al Khater's works tackle issues Middle Eastern countries face, primarily due to the socio-political climate, to provoke discussion. In 2017, in response to the blockade imposed on Qatar via its neighbouring countries, Al Khater's graphic art depicting her and the nation's mood and thoughts regarding the situation garnered much attention. As a result, in 2018, she was commissioned to create a piece to mark the first anniversary of the blockade to symbolise the community's resilience and solidarity since the affair began.

Al Khater, inspired by Qatar's leader, H H Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani's, speech which addressed the nation following the start of the blockade, fashioned a larger-than-life neon sign in Arabic lettering, which translates to 'A Blessing in Disguise'. The phrase, which Al Thani used in his speech, was designed to represent the many unexpected benefits the blockade brought to Qatar, not least the unprecedented sense of national solidarity and alignment with the nation's leaders during the siege. The artwork was prominently mounted on the external façade of Doha's Old Fire Station Artist's Residences overlooking the Corniche and West Bay, a constant reminder to all the country's residents that we can all triumph over adversity!

Location: The Old Fire Station, Mohammed bin Thani Street, Al Bidda, Doha

Location Map: British Council Qatar

Calligraphy by Jassim Al Nasrallah

Image: LegacyLandmarks

Jassim Al Nasrallah is a Kuwaiti multidisciplinary artist and self-taught calligrapher whose childhood obsession with Arabic letter forms has inspired an entire portfolio of calligraphic art. Al Nasrallah's work mixes classic calligraphy structures and rules with contemporary art forms and is intended, through various mediums - sculptures, paintings, illustrations, digital art and murals - to convey Arab culture, history and religion. Commissioned by Qatar to create a sculpture that symbolises Arabic culture, located outside the entrance to The Hilton at The Pearl, Al Nasrallah constructed a piece with a modern take on an ancient form of expression with his Calligraphy Sculpture.

Al Nasrallah's sculpture, a 57-piece work of art wrapped together to create a mesmerising form, was influenced by a quote from an ancient Arabic poem that follows the theme of time passing, departures and returns. Located outside the entrance to a hotel, whose very existence depends on guests arriving and departing with time and subsequent returns to a culture renowned for their hospitality, makes the sculpture an apt addition. The mirror-polished steel, which dazzles day or night in the sun, and a carefully placed lighting system now greets and bids guests farewell no matter how often they visit.

Location: Hilton Doha, Diplomatic Street, West Bay, Doha

Location Map: Hilton Doha

Nearest Metro: DECC Metro Station on the Red Line

If Doha's art inspires you to try some calligraphy, check out our Learning the Art of Calligraphy in Qatar article for places in Doha that offer workshops and courses.

Main image: Shutterstock/CreativityLover

Published: September 11, 2023
Last updated: September 11, 2023
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