Hassan Qureshi strays from the script with his Arabic calligraphy

The emerging Columbus artist, who will exhibit at the Columbus Arts Festival this weekend, embraces the traditional form of writing to address everything from his evolving faith to the crisis in Gaza.
Hassan Qureshi
Hassan QureshiCourtesy the artist

Prior to Oct. 7, artist Hassan Qureshi said the beginner Arabic calligraphy workshops he hosted had a markedly different feel.

In earlier days, the two-and-a-half-hour course would begin with Qureshi teaching participants how to form the different Arabic letters, ending with person choosing simple word to write, such as “peace” or “love.” “You know, something that’s a bit flowery,” Qureshi said.

In the months since, however, the workshop has shifted to be more about art and activism – an evolution the Columbus artist has steadily seen bleed into his own practice.

“Art can be kind of a linear thread that cuts through a lot of the data and opinions and politics to connect to your heart,” said Qureshi, who will exhibit his Arabic calligraphy as one of the 2024 Emerging Artists displaying at the Columbus Arts Festival on the downtown riverfront Friday-Sunday, June 7-9. “So, the prognosis of these workshops certainly shifted, as did the way I go about the subject matter I want to create and paint about. … It’s no longer just for the beauty and, you could say, surface level expression of it. Now it goes much deeper.”

This shift, Qureshi said, has evidenced itself in subtle ways, surfacing in the color palette with which he works and in the Quran verses he selects to translate to the canvas. Recently, he created a work around a verse from the religious text that has taken on new power for him in the wake of the unfolding genocide in Gaza: “Allah does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.”

“There are verses I connect with, and that I think a general audience can connect with, just on a human level,” said Qureshi, who first took up Arabic calligraphy seven or eight years ago, drawn in part to the way the traditional practice serves to beautify language. “And [those verses] can reflect many things, whether it’s about the human struggle, or patience, or what is going on in Palestine right now. … We see these videos and pictures of people whose entire families have been demolished or destroyed, yet they’re somehow able to maintain their faith, to stay strong. And, honestly, somebody like me who grew up in Western society, I don’t know that I would have that kind of strength. … It becomes almost a rechecking of your faith, asking how you can be stronger, how you can be more true, how you can get to a faith that’s as strong as the Palestinian people.”

It helped, of course, that Qureshi created the bulk of his calligraphy pieces for the Arts Fest in the wake of his selection earlier this year, a stretch of time in which his thoughts have often centered on Gaza.

“I didn’t have a lot of calligraphy pieces lying around,” said Qureshi, who also applied to the festival with his more traditional wildlife paintings and portraiture work, which have long comprised a majority of his portfolio. “In the past, all of the Arabic calligraphy work was very custom based, with people wanting specific things for their homes, or something specific written.”

For Qureshi, the distinctive practices have allowed him to exercise different parts of his artistic brain, with the Arabic calligraphy challenging him to embrace a more limited set of tools (he creates the works with a chisel-tip pen or paintbrush) and a narrower, comparatively focused approach. “It’s got to be something that leads the eye to the written words, and it can be a challenge making sure those details are airtight,” he said. “Whereas with wildlife painting, it can be more abstract, and you’re working in a more layered format, sort of building things up.”

Qureshi first studied Arabic calligraphy under a Jordanian master, though he long had a familiarity with the form, having grown up attending mosques where the craft was often displayed. These earliest lessons focused heavily on the rules of the calligraphy, which emphasizes symmetry. And Qureshi initially homed in on a large, elegant type of script known as thuluth, which he said means “in thirds,” with each letter or phrase broken into thirds on a canvas. “So, it creates not necessarily a mirror symmetry, but a balance in terms of the number of strokes that are on each side,” he said.

Both calligraphy and his more traditional, representative paintings, however, can lead the artist to disappear into a similar “flow state,” as he described it, where he’ll be so focused on a canvas that hours can pass in a blink. “You enter that state where you struggle working for hours and don’t even realize you missed dinner,” said Qureshi, who emigrated to the United States from Pakistan with his family at age 8, first settling in Flint, Michigan. “And those are great moments. Those are the moments I really strive for.”

Even as Qureshi’s practice has continued to evolve in light of recent events, he said both his painting and his calligraphy are still meant to capture a degree of wonderment, and that it’s never his intent to create discomfort, though he's braced for those conversations given the realities of what his work has started to address. “Even with the Palestine piece I’m working on now, the approach is to create something that will give people a sense of hope,” he said, “even as it makes them question.”

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