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By Culturekiosque Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, 6 MARCH 2009 - In the Islamic world, the practice of calligraphy constitutes an expression of piety. The writing of Arabic script was considered an exemplary activity for men and women of all stations due to its association with the Qur'an. Born in Najaf, Iraq (1944), Hassan Massoudy, is one of the most highly-regarded calligraphers in the world and has been a key figure in the introduction of the art of Arabic calligraphy to wider audiences. On view at the Kennedy Center's Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World festival through 15 March, Hassan Massoudy's modern Arabic calligraphy text messages prefigure, in many ways, a more aesthetically pleasing and philosophically more siginificant use of text messaging as practiced in the current popular culture.

Hassan Massoudy: "La mesure d'aimer c'est d'aimer sans mesure" - St Augustine, 2006
75cm x 55 cm, Water-based Pigments on Paper
© Hassan Massoudy
Photo: Hassan Massoudy: Modern Arabic Calligraphy Catalogue
Courtesy of October Gallery, London

After studies in painting and calligraphy in Baghdad from 1960 to 1969 and desipite a strong attachment to his country, Massoudy left Iraq for France in 1969 where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He earned his living by producing headlines and cover art in calligraphy for Arabic magazines and later received his degree in 1975. Since then, Hassan Massoudy has collaborated with leading French publishers, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the British Museum's excellent Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East (2006), the Paris Opera Ballet, the musicians Fawzi al-Aiedy and Kudsi Erguner, the American choreographer and dancer Carolyn Carlson and other important artists and musicians.

Rather than the classical tradition of using black ink to create Arabic calligraphy, Hassan Massoudy uses vibrant color and large stylized characters to show how the written language can be both light and weighty, ancient and new. The painters Fernand Leger, Henri Matisse, Pierre Soulages and Pablo Picasso have also influenced the Iraqi artist's visual style. As with the sculptures of Anish Kapoor, Massoudy's art does not subscribe to the thematic stereotypes of war, gender, jihadism, race and identity generally associated with and currently preferred by those who market or consider contemporary art of the Arab states.

Hassan Massoudy: "Les yeux te donneront des nouvelles du Coeur"
75cm x 55 cm, Water-based Pigments on Paper
© Hassan Massoudy
Photo: Hassan Massoudy: Modern Arabic Calligraphy Catalogue
Courtesy of October Gallery, London

The words and phrases, that are the inspiration for Massoudy's elegant calligraphy, are drawn from poets and philosophers throughout the centuries ranging from St. Augustine, Seneca, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius and the medieval Sufi mystic writer Ibn 'Arabi, to Charles Baudelaire, Confucius, Tchouang-Tseu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - as well as popular wisdom.

Hassan Massoudy: Sinbad le Marin
Editions Alternatives, Paris
© Hassan Massoudy, Photo courtesy of Editions Alternatives

Hassan Massoudy has exhibited regularly since 1980 and has published over twenty books. Today, peace and tolerance are central themes of Massoudy's work leading him to work with Amnesty International, UNICEF and other related organizations. The works on view in Washington, DC were created exclusively for the Arabesque festival.

Hassan Massoudy: "Celui qui accorde les…", 2007
75cm x 55 cm, Water-based Pigments on Paper
© Hassan Massoudy
Photo: Hassan Massoudy: Modern Arabic Calligraphy Catalogue
Courtesy of October Gallery, London

The Arabesque festival is a three-week celebration of Arab arts and culture that includes music, dance, and theatre as well as exhibitions of art, jewelry, fashion, photos, and cuisine representing the twenty-two members of the Arab League. The $10-million-festival is presented in cooperation with the League of Arab States.

Other important visual arts shows include Breaking the Veils, an itinerant exhibition of the work of women artists from the Islamic world and Youssef Nabil: Cinema, a photography show devoted to the work of the young Egyptian artist and photographer. Heavily influenced by the glamour and melodrama of the golden age of Egyptian cinema, Nabil's pictures are shot in black and white and then hand-colored, an old technique very common in Egypt. They include images of Arabic movie stars, the late Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, legendary belly-dancer Fifi Abdou, the seemingly ubiquitous (in Arabic art) Oum Kalthoum, as well as portraits of fellow artists, many of them from the Arab world, notably Shirin Neshat, Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum, Ghada Amer and Zaha Hadid.

Youssef Nabil: Sweet Temptation, Cairo, 1993
Hand-coloured silver gelatin print, 40 x 27cm
Edition of 10
, © Youssef Nabil

And while on the surface Youssef Nabil seems to echo the work of, say, David LaChapelle or the French duo Pierre et Gilles, it is through his cinematic photographs of Arab celebrities, celebrity culture and his own existential condition that the Egyptian artist tackles delicate themes in Arabic culture such as nudity, death and sex, including male homosexuality where consensual sex between adult males (who are supposed to be married) is a crime in Middle Eastern society today.

Youssef Nabil: Cinema - Self-Portrait, Florence, 2006
Hand-coloured silver gelatin print, 40 x 27cm
Edition of 10,
© Youssef Nabil

Youssef Nabil was awarded the Seydou Keita Prize for portraiture at the 2003 Biennial of African Photography in Bamako, Mali. He has had solo exhibitions at the Centro de la Imagen, Mexico City, in 2001; at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France, in 2003; the Patricia Laligant Gallery in New York, in 2005 and the Third Line Gallery in Dubai in 2007. Nabil's participation in curated group shows include Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East at the British Museum and Nineteen Views: Contemporary Arab Photography at the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville, Spain.

Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World
Until 15 March 2009
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
Tel: (1) 202 467 46 00

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