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Syrian Artist Mixes Messages of Hope with Arabic Calligraphy for Edmonton’s Art Walk

posted on: Jul 9, 2018

Syrian Artist Mixes Messages of Hope with Arabic Calligraphy for Edmonton’s Art Walk



EDMONTON—Sitting in his sister’s north-side Edmonton home, Maher Housn dips his bamboo calligraphy pen into a pot of ink he mixed from pigment, silk and Arabic gum before touching it to a sheet of banana leaf paper.

Housn’s work is a modern twist on the tradition of Arabic calligraphy, incorporating the old way of writing in a neat horizontal row in black ink beneath his creations of bold colours and flecks of gold and words transformed into more abstract shapes representing his messages.

This weekend, he will join the 450 artists taking part in the 23rd annual Whyte Avenue Art Walk this weekend.

Festival producer Kim Fjordbotten said the event started in 1995 in hopes of animating the streets of Old Strathcona, with artists setting up easels on sidewalks. In the first year, organizers managed to get 35 artists to volunteer to take part.

The festival now features 450 artists — who pay to take part — spread out over four kilometres, from 100 St. to 108 St., along Whyte Ave. Fjordbotten said they have had to cap the number of entries and there is a lottery system to get in the festival.

The art walk runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, rain or shine.

“It’s this perfect little hug for the neighbourhood,” Fjordbotten said.

The festival puts the focus on fine art, featuring first-time artists like Housn alongside painters who have returned to the event every year, Fjordbotten said.

“I love that people can find their own undiscovered master,” Fjordbotten said.

Housn was born in Syria and moved to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 1993 before coming to Edmonton in February.

Wearing a blue shirt he designed with the word “peace” in white in the shape of a dove, Housn chatted about the confluence of art, religion and culture.

Housn grew up in the mid-sized town of Swaida in southwestern Syria, surrounded by ancient Roman ruins. It’s a far cry from where he speaks about his art — a hybrid of old and new — in his sister’s living room in a home in northwest Edmonton built in the mid-1990s.

Housn first fell in love with Arabic calligraphy when he was about 8 years old through reading books. Traditionally, learning calligraphy requires a teacher, but he is self-taught.

He had encouragement from his father and then his brother, who is also a digital and photographic artist. Housn’s brother still lives in Syria and he finds it difficult to hear news of the bombings in his home country.

Housn said when he saw people killing in the name of Islam, he saw a representation of the religion that was missing something.

When he found Sufism, a form of mystical Islam where believers seek truth and love through a personal relationship with God, he saw a way to bring that message of love to people through his art.

The Sufi poet Rumi features heavily in Housn’s work. The calligrapher centres words like “love,” “peace” and “passion” in bold colours, swirling in patterns that range from showcasing symmetry to breaking completely out of the box.

“People like those values; they like those words; they miss those words,” he said.