Recently, I had the pleasure to sit and talk to Syrian American artist, Kinda Hibrawi. A meeting I've wanted to do ever since I laid eyes on her beautiful work almost three years ago. She is most known for her colorful, modern take on Arabic calligraphy, an art form that has been in the Arab and Islamic culture for centuries.
Arabic is an incredibly poetic and expressive language. Hibrawi's ability to translate the rich meanings of the script though her contemporary calligraphy surrounded by bright and vivid paint is exquisite. It's an eye-catching representation of east meets west.
In anticipation of her upcoming 2011 collection, Hibrawi lets us in on her early years as an artist, her most difficult challenges, and what we can expect from her next.
Nour Akkad: When did you begin your love affair with art?
Kinda Hibrawi: I have always loved the arts, and just being creative. I've been painting ever since I was a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia. But I started taking it seriously when I was going through a really rough time in my life. It was in 2004. A close friend of mine had been killed in a car accident. I got let go from my job and I needed a therapeutic outlet, so I turned to painting. A friend then said to me why don't you start selling these in galleries and I thought there is no way, who is going to take me seriously? It so happened that I ran into someone at my gym whose husband had a gallery and I pretty much begged her to get me in to see him. Hoping he would just take a look at my work and he did, and liked it. That was really my main break. But before that, I was hustling.
NA: What was the hardest thing you experienced when you decided you wanted to make art as your career?
KH: That no one took me seriously. People would ask me sometimes what do you do? No really, what do you do for work? Even some of my friends at the time would say "come on, you're not an artist; you just do it on the side, as a hobby." But in my head, it was really important in order for this thing to work, to take it seriously. To truly believe in mind that this was a career path, not just a side hobby. I felt really strongly that if this was going to work, I had to think in big terms.
NA: When you started, did you know what you wanted your art to be?
KH: No. In fact if you look at my earlier work there's two really different ideas going on. I did a lot of floral work in the beginning, similar to the close up flowers of Georgia O'Keefe. At the same time I was dabbling with the calligraphy so I wasn't really sure which direction I was going to go into. But that is part of exploration and finding your style. You have to start somewhere. The fun part is the journey and ultimately discovering new ideas. You have to at some point just let go and let things take its own course.
NA: How would you describe it now?
KH: Now I feel like each collection is either Arabic calligraphy or it's more abstract. This new collection I'm working on, the 2011 collection, which is going to be all abstract landscapes. No calligraphy, which is good for me because I feel like I kind of take a break from the writing. I don't want to be pigeonholed into just being an Arabic calligrapher. I want people to see I have a wider range than that.
NA: What has inspired you so much about the Arabic language?
KH: It's a very beautiful, romantic language. I kind of compare Arabic calligraphy to a dance. It flows in the same way when you're physically writing these repetitive and lyrical strokes.
NA: Most people don't know that there is an actual science to Arabic calligraphy and rigorous training that comes with it. How did you learn Arabic calligraphy?
KH: I did study with a master calligrapher and I think you do essentially need to have a background and an understanding of Arabic calligraphy studies. At least, if for nothing else, than to respect where this art form is coming from. It's really important. As an Arab American I wanted to fuse my philosophies, ideals and cultures together. This is when I introduced color and a freer flowing art form. I was also using text to look like texture in the paintings. I felt I had to make it my own by taking the best of both worlds and represent them visually.
NA: Has the master calligrapher you trained with seen your work?
KH: I haven't found him. [Laughs]. I think he would be shocked. I should track him down but I don't think he has a clue. I was fourteen and I begged my parents to get me some lessons. He would come to the house and would correct me and there would be scribbled red marks all over my homework. It was a lot of practice and work. Very intense.
NA: What do you say to those that have criticized your Arabic calligraphy as not being "traditional?"
KH: It's not. I agree. It's more of Arabic script and if you want to call it Arabic calligraphy you can but it doesn't adhere to any particular calligraphic style. But I studied and have respect for all of the styles. I just chose to make it my own.
NA: What made you decide on moving your Arabesque art to wearable Arabesque art in creating the Kinda Hibrawi Apparel collection?
KH: That was something that my collectors, fans and supporters sort of inevitably asked for because I felt a lot of people were coming to the shows to support and maybe they couldn't afford to put a few grand on a painting but they wanted to take home something from the show. So I started with one t-shirt, the love shirt, and I had it at my last Gibran show in '09. When they sold out after an hour, I thought, wow, there could be something here. So it just kind of clicked that this would be a great way to start a dialogue, to have people have this wearable art and to have the Arab culture be positively represented. I designed four different positive words in Arabic and they are love, beauty, peace and justice. Our tag line is "Spreading Peace and Understanding One Shirt at a Time." That is the basis of what this whole collection is about and why I decided to do this.
NA: Proceeds from all of the online sales of your tees will benefit UNRWA - United Nations Relief and Works Agency. How important is it to you to help others through your art?
KH: I think it's important that we participate in our community, whether here or abroad. We each have a different way of giving, for some it is monetary, while for others it's building homes in rural villages. Even simply writing a blog on the atrocities of refugees is helping. All of it is necessary and vital to a better community and environment. I see it as an important part of being a conscious and active member of society. And the question was never "can I help?" it was always "how?" What do I have that I can offer to others? It is all of our responsibility to be giving and compassionate, but its how are we going to go about doing it, which is the real question.
NA: What has been the biggest challenge so far in your career?
KH: [Laughs] Everything. Everything is always a challenge. It's a challenge to mentally always get yourself motivated. You've got to constantly inspire yourself or be inspired. That's difficult day after day, year after year because we tend to be our own worst critic. I'm such a perfectionist about my work. I can't even look at some of my older stuff. I'm very critical. So you're always just trying to reinvent yourself, trying to come up with new ideas. And you never feel like they are as good as they could be, and you always want to change things. I think that is the most difficult thing for me. I am my own worst critic.
NA: What has been the proudest moment so far in your career?
KH: Besides my very first solo show, it would be my father being a witness to my work. Because he has supported and cheered me on even when things were tough and I didn't believe it was going to get better. And so for me to be like look I did it, I made it -- I've been recognized by the State Department, I've been recognized by national and international news agencies, or been on TV or spoken at a University. For me, to have my dad witness all of that, it's been pretty cool. I can tell he's proud of me
NA: What advice would you give to someone that is thinking about taking this same career path, young age, mid age, or old age?
KH: There's a naiveté when you are young, which is a good thing. Because this energetic optimism is what gives you the initial strength to march forward with gusto, simply because you don't know what lies ahead. How hard or easy the road will be. But at least if it doesn't work out you can always say I tried. That's the way I felt. Because our lives get harder as we get older. They become filled with big responsibilities and ultimately our life priorities shift. And putting our passions into action becomes more challenging and then we just give up only to look back with regret and think about the "what if". I used to sit behind my desk at my first job out of college and daydream about the "what if?" What if I became an artist? Today, I think "what if" I had never got up from behind that desk? And I'm really glad I did get up.
NA: In your words, do you still have that same energy, that march forward with gusto?
KH: I feel it is the same excited energy about new projects or paintings, but it is also a wiser and more mature energy. I've learned so many good lessons over the past few years. For example, early on if I got an email from ANYONE regarding my art I would celebrate with a giant "woo hoo, that's so cool!" [Laughs] when in reality it would not necessarily amount to anything. Now I've learned to screen some of those 'spam' emails a bit better. So I think that with time comes experience, and patience. And if something doesn't work out, it's not meant to for a reason. That's the biggest lesson I've learned.
KH: I'm continuing with the Arabesque shirts and to possibly design scarves and handbags, in collaboration with handbag designer Dareen Hakim. And I'm just excited to work on my 2011 collection on abstract landscapes, which is inspired by my recent trip to Aleppo, Syria where I'm from. When I was in Halab (Aleppo in Arabic) over the summer, I did a lot more sightseeing and took a bunch of photographs, which is the inspiration behind my 2011 collection. Going to the Saint Simeon Citadel up there, it was incredible to see the way the light hit the buildings. The way the sunlight hits the architecture over there is so beautiful and incredible. So a lot of the collection has to do with light and landscapes. I'm looking forward to being still, quiet and just painting.
This is an edited transcript of the interview.