Nugamshi (b. 1982, Saudi Arabia) connects traditional Arabic calligraphy, site-specific graffiti installations, and contemporary graphic design into a form of art referred to as “calligraffiti.” Nugamshi’s work transcends the common experience of looking at a static painting; his paintings communicate an intimate relationship between his body and the written word. Nugamshi describes the act of painting as a dance performance; his actions become part of the art itself.
LE: Tell me a bit about your relationship between yourself, your performance, and the words that you are writing. Does your body and your performance become part of the art itself?
Nugamshi: Whenever I paint or practice calligraphy, I always try to be myself. I feel like painting the characters and seeing them come alive before me is like a dance. I see painting as a dancing movement, and that’s how I try to show these characters to everyone else. This dance, when I create these characters and these letters, is like a spiritual movement. By drawing and painting, I connect to my spirituality. This began when I was young and I saw my mother clean her room with a broom. I realized that her movements were like a dance performance, and this broom was like a brush. I use a broom to paint on walls, so I am also dancing while I work.
LE: For those of us who don’t speak Arabic, will you translate some of the words you write? What are your favorite words to paint?
N: My favorite is “her.” In one of my old projects, I often painted the word “Nun.” Nun is an old God in the Arabian world, a god before Abraham and Islam. I don’t have any resources on this God other than its name and symbol, which is a zig-zag, like a wave. Nun is a whale, and in Egyptian history Nun is a sea god, but in Saudi, when Islam and the new nation was born, they covered up these old Gods. It was a part of our culture before Islam. In this project, I am painting this name inside old buildings where no one goes or is allowed.
Other words I like to paint are “spiritual” and “good morality.” I believe in good morality and unfortunately I feel that not many people in this age understand it completely. They believe that morality and religion are the same, but morality occurs from person to person, between you and me. I see a lot of people masking their actions with a false morality, which is very harmful. You see racists say “I’m not a racist, but…” That’s not moral. I don’t see myself as an artist, but as a human being who strives to become a noble person. I have a simple message: just that we should all work to be our best, kindest, and most moral selves.
LE: During your painting performances, you always work with headphones, blocking out outside noise. What kind of music do you listen to while you paint?
N: I listen to a lot of post-rock, like Mogwai and Sigur Ros. Sometimes I listen to metal rock and heavy metal. That’s why I say this is a spiritual experience, but not religious. Music is a human thing that connects us all and has a lot of emotion. When I’m painting, I don’t think; instead I focus on the music. Different music can result in different types of inspiration. I believe that the best thing to come into this world is not visual art, but music. It’s the most human thing. Music connects me to other cultures, and when you listen to music, you feel yourself as a human being.
LE: Do you see your work as traditional? How does that relate to your modern Saudi identity?
N: I learned traditional Arabic calligraphy before I started painting. When I was very young, I used to draw calligraphy all the time. In my paintings I move away from traditional calligraphy, but in my work as a designer I realize that I have to return to classic calligraphy. I use traditional tools and I teach myself how to become a better calligrapher. But I am both traditional and modern because I am ultimately Saudi Arabian, and I try to reflect this in my art. In the Western media, there is a bad image of Saudi Arabians, and I want to change that with my art. I always create these paintings in my Saudi thobe [*a floor-length white robe with long sleeves which is buttoned to the neck]. The thobe is a traditional piece of Saudi clothing, and Arabic calligraphy is a traditional part of Saudi culture. I don’t think that I necessarily try to do something new. I just try to develop my style of calligraphy and art of the Arabic alphabet. I’m trying to be myself and to do so I must be a Saudi Arabian human being.
LE: Do you prefer to paint on paper or on large spaces like buildings?
N: I prefer to paint on large spaces because I like to do large-scale art. My personality is like aggressive, but I’m trying to translate it to a bigger scale. I don’t want to translate it in a bad way, to get a angry reaction. I like to do it very large so that it’s clear and easily understood. And I realize that my hand often shakes, maybe I’m nervous, but I figure I need to do my art in a big scale.
LE: Do you do a lot of public art, or do you mainly work in private spaces?
N: At the moment, I don’t like working in public. It feels like I am there to be entertainment. When I do my performance and make my art, I go out and leave the public space because I don’t want that moment to be seen. I don’t like attention. It’s much better to have the performance as a private and personal experience.
LE: Is there a lot of graffiti in Saudi Arabia?
N: Yes, there is a lot. There is a lot of graffiti that copies famous artists, but no one can really copycat them; everyone’s work is individual. No one can be L.E. and no one can be Nugamshi. They can learn from me and my path but I believe it’s very hard to copy someone and learn from that, or use it to discover more about yourself and where you are.