Karim Jabbari, the man with the Jedi moves

Light calligraphy

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Positive vibes and enthusiasm are the first words that come to mind when one hears Karim Jabbari talk. This Montreal-based jack of all trades was born in Tunisia and is known for his calligraphy and calligraffiti (a mix of calligraphy and graffiti). Most of all, he is probably the only Arab light calligraphy artist out there. Occasionally bursting out in laughter, he told al.arte.magazine more about what he does, why he does it and what is yet to come.

It all started when Karim Jabbari was twelve years old, when he realized calligraphy was something he was good at. As it made him stand out, and soon drew the attention of his classmates, he knew it would open doors: “I felt like calligraphy gave my life a new definition, it gave me a social life. And this is why I got attracted to it and that I felt like: I need to stick to this discipline and I need to take it to another level.” Karim Jabbari’s father was a political activist, jailed for thirteen years and repressed by the Ben Ali regime, which caused the Jabbari family to become socially isolated. Consequently, calligraphy was a bridge that led other people to him as a child.

Later in life, when he moved to Canada in 2000, calligraphy became a keepsake. It was a souvenir and a reminder not only of his roots but also of what he had left behind: “I felt that calligraphy really was an identity for me in a new world. I crossed the ocean to come to a new world, where they barely know what Arabic is, what the Arabic language is.” eL Seed, an artist who had become a close friend, taught him the techniques needed for calligraffiti. After Jabbari had transferred calligraphy from paper onto walls, it did not take long before he took calligraffiti to the next level: light calligraphy. Using the motto “it allows me to paint where I am not allowed to paint”, he describes it as a beautiful discipline with a visual impact so strong it can’t but attract you: “The first question you ask yourself is: how is this done?” Although this process could be seen as an evolution, the accomplished artist did not leave desk and walls totally behind for the sake of flash lights. What he does is calligraphy, calligraffiti and light calligraphy, all at the same time.

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A second nature of things

The reason for turning from paper to concrete was to make his art public. It also gives things an Arabic touch: “I call it the second nature of things. Which means, the things that already exist in the street, you add a new definition to them, which is an Arabic definition. So you add the word with the light, and you have a good composition between the object and the definition that you write in the light.” But there’s more to it. The artist has a set of goals. “First of all,” he starts, “since I live in Canada here, we have a new generation of Arabic and Muslim youth. They are not really connected to their origin and they don’t really know a big thing about Arabic. So what I want to do through art, through calligraphy and through what I do is to bring them closer to their identity, to the Arabic language. Because I don’t really write letters or shred letters like this, I really write something with a message.” There is a story behind every single one of his art works. By using quotes, poetry, and phrases from history books he wants passers-by to look further than the calligraphed letters. He wants them to find their identity.

“The second thing,” he adds, “is to prove to the society in which I’m living here, that the Arabic language and the Arabic culture, and the Arabic and Islamic history is not really what they think. Because they think that we are like people who come from nowhere, that we have no roots, and that we come to the country because we have no other options and nowhere to go. So I just want to tell them: our history is way deeper than you think. I am really proud to show them who we are, really. No matter what they think, they take it positive, they take it negative, that’s up to them.” The artist’s aim is not only to establish a bridge between people and the Arabic language in a quick and accessible way. By conveying a message through giving the Arabic language a new dimension, he wants to put an end to taboos and wrong assumptions about Arab muslims, to bring about some change in people, and connect them with each other. And it works: “It’s really amazing how light calligraphy brings people around you. They see you working on the street with the Jedi moves, and then they come around you, they sit with you. And they even try! It’s really nice and it shows how a lot of people out there are willing to open a debate and want to come and talk to you”.

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An activist, willing or nilling

Karim Jabbari gets inspired by many things: poetry, the people around him, religious books, sayings of the Prophet, the suffering in the world… When he gets touched by something, he tries to translate that into art. This also, and certainly, holds for his father‘s political activism: “It made me an outlaw at an early age. At the age of twelve I had to take care of my family. I didn’t really have a normal childhood. But all these responsibilities, this harsh life that we had and the struggles we had, seriously made me a stronger person. Now I am enjoying everything I do. Because everything I do, I started from nothing. I came from really really far. I had to work hard. This had a big influence on my artwork. I constantly try to think about others when I do my artwork. Seriously, I want to be inspired by a poet, or an author, an artist, anything. I try to look for something that could help the people who are voiceless, because they don’t have the chance to produce artwork or to say it loud.”

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Graffiti is a way of self-express, a way to answer to something that happened. The Tunisian revolution started close to the place where Karim Jabbari was born, and the largest number of fatalities occurred in his city, Kassrine. As he lost his uncle in the uprising, and as his mother said “please, tell the world what’s happening to us”, when he spoke to her on the phone from Canada and overheard gun shots, he felt like he was right in the middle. As an artist, his art was the best way to respond to what was happening: “I try not to be a militant, I try not to be an activist. But seriously… it’s stronger than me. Sometimes, I really have to answer.”

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“I’m allowed to dream, right?”

Trying to evolve constantly, with the goal of creating something new every day, Karim Jabbari wants to challenge himself and graffiti as an art from. Talking about past projects and future dreams, the multi-talented artist makes clear that one of his goals is to develop calligraphy, calligraffiti and light calligraphy from its basic definition to a wider one by combining it with other art forms, installations, and a variety of compositions. One example is Arab Winter, a multi-disciplinary event with musicians, painters, photographers, calligraphers, graffiti artists, architecture, and short films. This event was organised by eL Seed, Sundus Abdul Hadi, Tamara Abdul Hadi, Sawsan AlSaraf, Taghlib Abdul Hadi and Karim Jabbari himself, to let people know what really happened inside the revolutions in the Arab world. A second example is Made From Words, a fashion line based on the calligrapher’s artwork. Karim Jabbari’s intention with this line was for young people to get the chance to wear meaningful clothes.

The gifted Tunisian Canadian has big plans for the future. He would like to take his Back To Basics project to other parts of the world. When he organised this workshop in Montreal, he pulled youngsters away from iPhones, iPads and other high tech stuff towards face to face debates, conversations, graffiti and books. As he believes artists can play a big role in rebuilding Tunisia after the revolution, and young people need to gain self-confidence to believe they can achieve something, Tunisia would be ideal for this project.

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In addition, the artist hopes to add poetry to his skills. He is also working on a collection of abstract calligraphies on handmade paper and on a self-made font that people would instantly recognize as his work. He would also love to go to Turkey to learn to refine his calligraphy skills from the masters of calligraphy. It does not end there. He dreams of making a film with light calligraphy, a series of children’s books, a cartoon for children and, last but not least, organising a big event with workshops and concerts by the crème de la crème of graffiti artists, street artists, rappers and hiphop artists worldwide, on a location shared with al.arte.magazine in all confidentiality. The next thing on his agenda however, is speaking on the First Annual Creativity Forum in Saudi-Arabia, January 28 and 29, 2013.

Karim Jabbari is clear about what he wants to achieve: “I want to make a name in art in general. If you want to put me in a discipline, it’s very hard because… Yeah, I can be a street artist, I can be a calligraphy artist, I can be a graffiti artist… But I want to make a name for myself. And this only comes through hard work.” He wants to stand out from the crowd, and advises others to work hard for their goals too. “Keep on working hard! Any object you want to reach, it’s up to you. If you succeed, you did good. If you don’t, it’s your fault!”, he jokes. Quoting 14th century scholar Ibn al-Qayyim, he assures that the time wasted while dreaming and wishing could instead be used to follow those dreams: “Passing days are like dreams, the coming ones are wishes and the time separating them is wasted.”

Photos: © Karim Jabbari

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