“Humble yourself and be proud of your work” is the philosophy of Rawan El- Muntaser a young visual artist based in Tripoli, Libya. Her passion is calligraphy – in particular the form of Arabic خط الثلث used in the Quran. Her aim is to make an impact and to earn a reputation simply as ‘an artist’ rather than a ‘female artist’. A term too often used to marginalise and diminish the work of women.
RNW Media’s Huna Libya platform recently featured Rawan’s work and reports that, even as a school student, she was fascinated by calligraphy and strove to perfect her handwriting – focusing on the way her work looked even more than on its content. She feels a deep connection with the shapes of particularly Arabic and Asian lettering, a connection she describes as having an almost spiritual aspect. In her late teens Rawan began painting abstract watercolours as well as drawing portraits and refining her calligraphy skills. Now 24, Rawan is an accounting graduate and communication specialist as well as a visual artist. She is also a photographer but describes that as more of a hobby.
She began seriously practising her art 4 years ago in 2016 when she realised she wanted to pursue a new career and is now a fulltime content creator and digital artist. She pushed herself into trying new mediums and discovered new tools and then she applied for a grant from the British Council and won funding to take part in an exhibition.
Letters are living things
Rawan experienced a personal breakthrough in her work with calligraphy in 2018, focusing on the Arabic form خط الثلث and modernising it. Calligraphy, she says, is not about repeating the same thing so she tries to look at letters from a new perspective and renew them. The letters themselves are her inspiration. She sees them as living things and wants to reinvent them and give them new life. This is where the challenge lies – every time she creates a piece she goes through the same process of finding a new, deeper perspective.
This style of calligraphic art is not new, and Rawan says it is humbling to consider that some artists will take years to construct a single letter. She describes herself as still a student of this art and the process of creation is also a process of mastering herself. In 2016 she didn’t call herself an artist, but her work has gained momentum since 2018 as she has devoted more of her time and passion to it. Every piece she creates is time consuming and she sometimes questions the artistic process but, she says, the end result is always worth it.
Rawan has sometimes felt that she wants to quit – that the challenges are too daunting. Practical challenges include the unavailability of colours and tools but also how to price her work so it is affordable but enables her to generate income – a particular problem since the COVID-19 pandemic. On a personal level, she faces not only the creative challenge but also the perception of others that she’s not a ‘true artist’. She deals with these difficulties by focusing even more intently on her practice. She has created an Instagram channel Ounaonpaper to share her work and has been successful in attracting buyers from both Libya and abroad.
But, says Rawan, it’s important to stay grounded:
“A lot of people get overwhelmed with social media marketing in terms of likes and comments and they forget what art is actually about. Humble yourself and be proud of your work and remember it is not about likes and comments. Sometimes you have to step back a little and take stock of yourself.”
You can read the article in Arabic on the Huna Libya website here.