Abdulrahman Naanseh, Pressure/Movement/Effect

Heather Green

This article is written by Professor HEATHER GREEN and is published on October 20, 2022 by ASYMPTOTE, a Taiwan-based literary magazine dedicated to translating world literature as well as visual and auditory arts. 

I had the opportunity to meet and work with Syrian artist Abdulrahman Naanseh, an innovative Arabic calligrapher, during his residency as an Artist Protection Fund fellow at George Mason University. His solo show, Pressure/Movement/Effect, the culmination of his year-long fellowship, is currently on view at the Gillespie Gallery of Art, located in the university’s Fairfax campus.

Naanseh’s drawings and large-format paintings arise from words and phrases, often taken from classical and contemporary Arabic verse and drawn or painted in his own original calligraphic font. To these initial elements, Naanseh adds a whole vocabulary of dynamic gestures, textural and tonal modulations of the line, and a singular sense of spatial tension and unfurling.

In his acrylic paintings, an underlayer of brightly colored calligraphic curves and marks is revealed in the spaces left—spaces that are themselves formed in the shape of calligraphic writing—by a monochromatic top coat. In the drawings, different pens and writing tools, in combination with a variety of weights and textures of paper, allow for an array of effects: paper saturated by bright colors, or paper that in resisting the ink creates lines that barely brush the surface, lines that disappear into sharp points.

The poetic and linguistic inspirations for this work are inextricable from the political and personal themes that address the war in his native Syria—Naanseh was forced to leave Damascus five years ago—and, in a broader sense, speak out against governmental and religious surveillance, corruption, and oppression.

In addition to being moved by Naanseh’s startling images, I am intrigued by the way his work communicates, using language as a fundamental component, yet transcending linguistic reception. If literary translation performs a text in a new language, Naanseh’s practice of calligraphy is a textual performance that transforms texts, using linguistic symbols, into visual art. The resulting works present a combination of signal and noise redolent with emotion, force, and meaning.

—Heather Green

First, because this is primarily a literary journal, and your work is so intimately connected with poetry—specifically Arabic poetry—would you talk a bit about the connection between poetry and calligraphy, and how it manifests in your work? Who are some of the Classical and contemporary poets who inspire your work?

I’ve always been inspired by the shapes of Arabic letters because of the connotations and possibilities they have. They link meaning, form, movement, and imagination. Poetic music stimulates the imagination and has long influenced the world of Arabic calligraphy. My approach to my work and to formulating my works has always been to imagine painting poetry, painting music. Some contemporary poets who have inspired me and are connected to my current work are the Syrian-Kurdish poet Salim Barakat, especially in his books شمال القلوب أو غربها (The North of Hearts or their West: Lovers Unresolved) and الجندب الحديدي (The Iron Grasshopper), and the Syrian poet Ammar Hammoudi, in particular his Arabic haiku. I also draw on work by the Syrian poet Raafat Badr al-Din.

Many of your titles—They Extended the Wall of the PrisonThey Were a PeopleAll Distances are Dangerous, and Are We Free Yet, to name a few examples—seem to speak to the war in Syria and the resulting displacement of many people, which includes your own move to Beirut and now the United States. However, they could also speak to other sites of oppression, colonial violence, and war. Could you speak a bit about these titles, how you came to them, and whether many of their words are, in Arabic, included in the works themselves? Because these titles are so evocative, and I know you often begin with poetry, I also wondered whether you usually work with a title in mind, or come to a title later?

The titles of the artworks presented here are themselves present and written verbatim within the paintings whose words have been used to shape and construct the artwork. I can give two examples, from Ammar Hammoudi’s Arabic haiku (in my translation), that correspond to some of the titles of the paintings. Short Story They Made Too Long is from the following poem:

Short story they made too long
The story is a lot like fishing
We swallowed the bait but they just swing us in the air and laugh
As for us
We only want to die quietly in the basket

And, وسعوا باحة السجن (They Expanded the Prisonyard) is from this short piece: “They expanded the prison yard until we were no longer able to see the wall.”

You highlight and play with other elements of the Arabic language in your work, such as colloquialisms, sound, and wordplay. In our previous conversations, you’ve also talked about the way the Arabic language transcends national identity and even the fact that the word “Arab” comes, etymologically, from the notion of a person who can express themselves well in language. I’m intrigued by the way this connects, for you, to your art practice.

I have always enjoyed studying metaphors in language, and in recent years I have started to think more about some of the phrases used in colloquial spoken dialect that seem simple but carry multiple meanings. I began to use some of these phrases in my work, like the common phrase in Arabic that translates in English to “sounds good,” which can be used to say “everything is fine,” even when it’s evidently not. Sometimes I see it as a cynical style, a reaction to what is presented in the classical language used by political and religious platforms. Still, the sounds and shapes of the letters and words push and inspire me to search into the Arabic language, to explore its history and meaning.

I’ve previously mentioned that the origin of this adjective, “Arab,” arose in a distinctive way in the Arab culture. The French language, for example, is so named because the people of France speak it, so the origin of the name is the people of the language. But in the case of Arabic, language comes first. The Arabs carried the name of their language. The ancient Arabs were called Bedouins, and the word “Bedouin” comes from the verb “express,” as the Arab trader was distinguished among other cultures as a person capable of describing and explaining what he wants to say with full fluency and expressing what is inside him with eloquence and brevity.

I see that “eloquence and brevity” in your attention to individual phrases. I’ve gathered that an Arabic speaker (which I am not), and even someone conversant with Arabic calligraphy, may not be able to fully “read” your works, your own stylized font. Many of your viewers cannot read Arabic, and yet find meaning and resonance in your work. I’m interested in what arises when a work begins in “words,” using linguistic symbols as material, and is realized as an intuitive, aesthetic artwork, available even to a person who might not be able to “read” the language. You’ve described your process as meditative, and even a mental sanctuary. I wonder whether you could speak to the space you inhabit as you create the work, and some of what you find in that intersection of linguistic and artistic expression?

The inspiration comes in different ways, sometimes starting with the texture of paper and sometimes the color or type of pen or brush; even new tools, tools not used in traditional calligraphic methods, sometimes stimulate something new. I experiment, research, and experiment some more. Between research and meditation, between the touch of paper and fabric and the nature of inks and colors, I try to discover the meanings of words in different ways. Some works are completed in my mind before I begin, and some works I can envision only once I start painting or drawing.

Can you say a little bit about your training as a calligrapher, and the key moments when you began to take your work in new directions, innovating both stylistically and in terms of tools and materials?

The method followed in Arabic calligraphy schools is one of imitation, repetition, and skill refinement. For me, this began when I started studying Arabic calligraphy at the hands of my father, years after he completed his training. Then, I completed that path myself. For twenty years, I have been on an arduous journey to discover the secrets of this ancient art. When I got a degree in fine arts, I increased my knowledge of contemporary and abstract art forms, new tools and materials, and modern techniques.

All these experiences prompted me to develop my own style, to put all my experience in one place, and to make that contribution. Arabic calligraphy is an ancient, strict art that, in my opinion, may have reached a stage of stagnation. In my life experience, I have found that the religious and political nature of life in the Middle East, those severe restrictions, come to bear on everything that a person does. This pressure was and still is a motive for me to create a movement on the personal level, a creative movement that breaks restrictions, a method that carries enough freedom. Perhaps this is the reason that someone who tries to read a painting may see something other than the words.

Your recent solo show is titled, Pressure/Movement/Effect, words that relate to calligraphic art but also to war, displacement, and indelible consequences. Would you mind elaborating on what those words mean to you, how you’ve incorporated them into your works, breaking down the individual words?

Pressure/Movement/Effect is the title of my current exhibition. These are the words I use to begin to analyze what is happening in my life and the lives of many in Syria and others in the Arab region. I used these words, literally including them in my paintings, as an abstract figure study. Anyone who reads these words can understand the literal meaning of the words, and also the meanings as they relate to calligraphy. I see the other meanings related to the religious and political pressures that defeat Arab people and communities, pressures which prompted our societies in recent history to create movements that work for reform, renewal, and salvation. We try to remedy conflict and societal problems, and respond to them with a revolutionary movement to rid our societies of religious and political power structures and outdated stereotypes.

You’ve created a tremendous body of work this year, culminating in several major shows. Do you have new ideas about the direction you’d like to take your work next?

There are some new ideas I’m preparing for. I can’t say much about it, but I know my next project will be about “sound.” 


Abdulrahman Naanseh (b. 1991) is a Syrian artist, who learned traditional Arabic calligraphy from his father, a self-taught calligrapher, and later developed his own innovative style and font. His calligraphic paintings and drawings have been exhibited in Beirut’s Arneli Art Gallery during the Beit Misk Festival, solo exhibitions in the United States and Syria, and national Arabic calligraphy competitions in Syria. Naanseh is currently an Artist Protection Fund fellow and the 2022 artist-in-residence at George Mason University’s School of Art, where his solo show Pressure/Movement/Effect has been exhibited at both Mason Exhibitions Arlington and the Gillespie Gallery.

Heather Green is the Visual Editor for Asymptote. She is the author of the poetry collection No Other Rome and the translator of Tristan Tzara’s Noontimes Won. Her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in AGNIHopscotch TranslationPloughsharesPoetry InternationalThe New Yorker, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor in the School of Art at George Mason University and serves on the poetry faculty of Cedar Crest’s Pan-European M.F.A. program.


Link to Article: https://www.asymptotejournal.com/visual/pressure-movement-effect-abdulrahman-naanseh/