The work of Qatari artist Ali Hassan manages the trick of simultaneously being repetitive and ever changing, but it’s repetitive in a good way, and only in the subject matter: his fascination with the Arabic letter ‘nun’. It’s ever changing because he depicts the letter in a myriad of styles and in a multitude of media: watercolour, ceramic, wood, pastels, pencil, collage.
‘My main themes are the Arabic language and calligraphy, it doesn’t matter what medium I use,’ says Hassan. Asked why calligraphy is such a compelling art form for him, he explains its dual appeal: ‘Spiritually I am connected to it because of the Qur’an and physically I am connected to it because of the beauty.’
In his pieces he frequently uses passages from 1001 Nights, the classic Arabic collection of folk stories. One of his latest works is a striking black and white installation of wooden columns and piled up boxes, covered in the tiny repeated quotation: ‘The day that let’s us say goodbye.’
About the only materials he isn’t known for working with are oils (‘I don’t like the smell, and they take too long to dry’) and glass (but, it’s probably only a question of time).
A retrospective exhibition currently at Virginia and Commonwealth University (VCUQatar), gives a small glimpse into Ali Hassan’s diverse approach. Curated by Dr Abdulla Al Thani and Dr Jochen Sokoly, it is a collaboration between Al Markhiya Gallery and Doha’s yet to be built Arab Museum of Modern Art.
Hassan, who graduated from Qatar University with a history degree in 1982, is a self taught artist. ‘My school was extremely academic, we had one class of art a week and it was the only time I relaxed; it was like going on vacation,’ he recalls.
As a child Hassan was always drawing and experimenting at home, and he still does: his studio, at his home in Doha, is crammed with finished pieces and materials – he saves scraps and off cuts, in case they are just what he needs for his next work. But it’s Hassan’s love for the symbol ‘nun’ which is particularly fascinating. When asked how long he’s felt connected to ‘nun’, without missing a beat, he tells me it’s 22 years.
In the VCUQatar exhibition, ‘nun’ is there in many forms: as an iridescent, hand shaped ceramic with a shiny gold dot, like a coin or foil wrapped chocolate; as a vivid watercolour bleeding violet and mauve on to torn paper; as a collage with a splash of vibrant yellow. ‘I feel the letter “nun” is like a child I dress every day, there are a lot of different letters in English and Arabic, and it is up to the artist to interpret the letter as much as they can,’ he says.
No other artist is known for such an attachment to one letter, but Hassan isn’t proprietorial about his ‘nun’: ‘Anyone can use these letters, it’s like the ocean or the camel or the desert – it’s not just for one person.’
Hassan’s all round enthusiasm for such a diverse range of art styles, techniques and media, makes him an ideal mentor for new generations of artists and he has been instrumental in developing art education for children and young people in Qatar. He founded and was chairman of both the Youth Creative Art Center and the Girls Creativity Centers in Doha. ‘My job isn’t just to paint. I have a message and I want to be able to deliver that message,’ he enthuses. His use of everything from ceramics to collage hasn’t been like a linear evolution from one period to the next; he likes to have all kinds of projects on the go simultaneously: ‘I can do it at the same time, it is not a slow progression. If I see something like ceramics or zincographs I like to make use of it.’
Not surprisingly, he most admires artists who keep trying new things and cites Francis Bacon and Picasso amongst those he’s most drawn to. ‘I like artists who change their style,’ says Hassan, no doubt pondering what new skill he can learn next to clothe his beloved ‘nun’.
Ali Hassan: A Retrospective runs at VCUQatar until October 10. Open Sun-Thu 10am-4pm or by prior appointment. Call Dr Jochen Sokoly on 492 7200, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To see more of Ali Hassan’s work, visit www.alihassanart.com. With special thanks to Hawazen Alnuweiri for her translation work.