Yahya Al-Shuwaiter: Art from Calligraphy to the Abstract

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Visual artist Yahya al-Shuwaiter has created a transcendent artistic experience, manifest through his following a path that seems almost beyond the horizons of our visual culture. This entitles al-Shuwaiter the right to be regarded a pioneer of the modern Yemeni art movement.

Followers of the Yemeni visual arts movement might be aware of pioneering artistic movements in the country, such as realism and impressionism, which were born as a result of interaction with the existing contemporary art movement. But other movements, such as abstract art, have not received a fair assessment. This would place new artistic experiences in their deserved context. Concepts of founding, pioneering and renewal are all vital when discussing any artistic or literary movement. However, and in order to avoid throwing titles without restraint, a clear standardized framework can be relied upon to detail each concept. Founding a movement differs from pioneering one as the latter represents the mature beginnings while founding a movement represents initial attempts which might lack comprehensive form and content. Founding represents innovation, while pioneering follows as a role which may or may not be affected by those precedents but it is necessarily an extension, thereof. So, it is possible to have several pioneers who are not founders. This means that Hashim Ali, for example, is a pioneer in the impressionist movement in Yemeni art, because he represents the more mature experience, whereas there would have been a founder before him who had a less comprehensive experience.

If the Sea was Ink – Painting courtesy of Yahya Al-Shuwaiter

Al-Shuwaiter, from calligraphy to modern art

After his last solo exhibition at al-Saeed library, Taiz, in mid-January 2013, Yahya al-Shuwaiter secluded himself and retired from the art scene due to the bloody political conflict in the country. He also stopped painting entirely due to his deteriorating eyesight as he reached his 80s. Nevertheless, the war did not stop him from being present in the Yemeni art scene at the global level. In 2015, Italian corporation Imago Mundi, Luciano Benetton Collection, published a book about contemporary Yemeni visual artists, which was issued in Italian and English, covering 170 artists, including al-Shuwaiter.

In the late 1980s, his artistic journey began when he decided to turn from his work as an amateur calligrapher into a visual artist. Despite making the creative change at a later point in life – he was fifty years old – he found a huge energy for painting that took him over, enabling him to paint as in the past he had been prevented from pursuing his youthful dreams. He continued painting until the first decade of the 21st century, completing over 200 small and medium sized paintings. Most of them were watercolors or used colored pencils on scrap paper, usually used by amateurs. Although the technique is considered primitive by professional artists, it did not stop al-Shuwaiter, and he continued to stand out for both his tools and vision.

Yahya Al-Shuwaiter

Yahya Abdullah al-Shuwaiter was born in 1933 in al-Senni neighborhood in Old Ibb city. He studied at the religious school al-Maktab in Ibb city, then studied sharia science in Jebla. From his early years, al-Shuwaiter excelled compared with his peers, having beautiful handwriting. He opened a shop with his brother Abdulkarim and his nephew Ahmed Antar in the 1970s to letter trade boards and signs using calligraphy. They named the shop, House of Arabic Calligraphy, but it did not last for long. In the 1980s, he was assigned the task of writing appreciation certificates awarded by the Ibb governorate leadership to distinguished and celebrated personalities. Then he started participating in exhibitions that were organized by al-Nahda secondary school at the end of every year. He would sell paintings; and some of them drew the attention of Mamdouh Salem, an art teacher from Egypt. Salem wrote a letter to al-Shuwaiter encouraging him to keep going.

In the late 1980s, he started focusing on visual art and produced an abundance of art, with a strong leaning towards experimenting and exploring new paths for calligraphy and colors. He was not interested in drawing portraits or realistic embodiments. His goal was to stimulate a new visual sensitivity in the viewer. Throughout his career, he kept attempting to create new content in both form and perspective.

Al-Shuwaiter started utilizing Arabic calligraphy, especially Qur’anic verses, in his paintings as a visual aspect, sometimes hidden and at other times clearly visible, in the midst of a mixture of fonts and colors. His paintings show some letters clearly while other letters are obscured, in a way that involves the viewer in a game of discovering the Qur’anic verse. Sometimes the verse is clear, strengthened by new visual dimensions surrounded by a colorful ocean, with creative changes to the shapes and the dimensions of the letters. It looks similar to Tughra[i] paintings, which demonstrated the skills of Arabic calligraphers in transforming fonts into shapes or motifs. The paintings/words represented his artistic experience by drawing on the Arab cultural legacy, as if he wanted to mix his contemporary experience with deep-rooted originality, and utilizing formal symmetries between elements of the painting; symmetry is a common artistic feature in Islamic art.

At a later stage, al-Shuwaiter used a variety of artistic styles, from abstract figures and collages that fuse photographs with other visual art. He also created paintings that celebrated national days such as 26 September, 14 October and 22 May in an artistic way.

Formation – Painting courtesy of Yahya Al-Shuwaiter

He made a few attempts to produce oil paintings on canvas, but did not continue as he did not find it a suitable medium to channel his visual imagination. Perhaps because abstract art and Arabic calligraphy arts do not require a canvas and colors as much as needing rulers and a protractor; especially as his paintings focus on the centimetric accuracy of dimensions, spaces and angles between different fonts in one painting. That required serious attention on paper, which does not suit working on canvas.

Aesthetic sense compass 

Al-Shuwaiter is not good at explaining his paintings or even giving them titles. He just paints and leaves the rest to the viewer. He limits his cultural dialogue, not discussing artistic trends or famous artists or paintings. He just follows his instinctive artistic sense, which redefines artistic work based on the visual material of the painting without resorting to additional details. He is a self-taught and self-made artist who learned without formal artistic study, but who still offers an experience derived from the heart of modern art schools.

Despite stepping away from deep scholarly descriptions of artistic modernity, we can still say that such modernity is based on two foundations. The first is that artistic work becomes available to a modern sensibility when it requires the viewer to have refined artistic culture and taste, meaning that it pushes them to elevate their artistic conscience. The second foundation can be summarized as modern art not referring to any outside element, just itself. In this view, art is not a simulation or embodiment of reality, but a re-creation or a new design, meaning that a change in the view was followed by a change in shape and method. We can think of modern art based on these foundations, where al-Shuwaiter is considered an icon in the Yemeni visual art movement.

Color experiment – Painting courtesy of Yahya Al-Shuwaiter

Al-Shuwaiter’s works do not seek to create a psychological suggestion as much as they try to present themselves to the viewer as events. A painting is making itself, and undergoing a game of hiding and revealing by means of abstraction and detachment from any meaning, as in the second foundation. For example, in the painting ‘If the Sea was Ink’, the viewer knows they are looking at a Qur’anic verse hidden between the zigzags of the painting, and they need to make an effort to discover it due to the manipulation and interactions of the fonts and colors, which makes the viewing process, in its beauty, a moment of discovery.

Embrace – Painting courtesy of Yahya Al-Shuwaiter

Other paintings embody abstract vertical shapes, making them look more like obelisks that can be transformed into three-dimensional sculptures or geometric figures. In this case, it is advisable to gaze at the painting from top to bottom or vice versa, since the abstract form consists of a base and a frame. In other works, we find a kind of decoration and precise visual formation in the intermediate spaces, and some of them appear distinctly stylized. Others appear devoid of geometric accuracy, replaced by color and a linear scatter without clear focus.

The artistic obsession in the entirety of al-Shuwaiter’s work remains focused on creating harmony between the straight line and the curve; and twisting line shapes with each other on the one hand, and with color in its gradations and blends on the other, so that the painting becomes a complex abstract texture that is both provocative and beautiful at the same time.

Safwan al-Shuwaiter is a writer and researcher

[i] The Tughra is one of the ancient arts of Arabic calligraphy. It was developed for creating shapes or logos, and in the past was used for the signatures of Caliphs and Sultans, as well as a stamp on official documents. It is a mix of Diwania and Ijaza fonts. Currently, designers are employing it in more obvious ways. Perhaps the most famous Tughra that is familiar in our time is the al-Jazeera channel logo.

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