Farah Behbehani: a Woman and a Mother Who Gives Endlessly

  • Publish date: Thursday، 27 May 2021 Last update: Thursday، 06 April 2023
Written by: Noura Al- Swaity
Hair: Cleo
Makeup: Hessa Al Sanea’
Photographer: Mohammed Jasem
Location: Yaqoub Al-Humaidhi Farm – Kuwait

Arabic calligraphy has recently witnessed a remarkable advancement on the cultural level, whether it is through artwork, graffiti, or through cooperation with fashion houses, an example of this is the cooperation that took place between the Tunisian graffiti artist El Seed with the French haute couture house Louis Vuitton Where he added his exquisite style of using Arabic calligraphy and graffiti art to classic Louis Vuitton bags.

Today we shed light on the Kuwaiti artist who mastered the art of Arabic calligraphy, Farah Behbehani.

The artist and designer Farah Behbehani received her BA from Boston University and her MA in Advertisement Design from Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design, in London.

3oud.com sat down with Farah Behbehani to talk about her career as an artist, her outlook on life, and how she celebrates motherhood, with her mother and with her children.

1. You have previously published a book called "The Conference of the Birds", tell us more about the story behind it and about your first experience in publishing.

My fascination with Arabic letters and calligraphy began in 2006, while doing my master's degree at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London.

I was looking for inspiration for my thesis in book design, and began reading some translations from Eastern mythology, eager to create work that would resonate with our rich cultural heritage. I was particularly drawn to Farid al-Din Attar's "The Conference of the Birds," a 12th-century Sufi allegorical poem that tells the story of the birds of the world searching for their mythical king.

In my striving to explore historical styles of illustration, I was drawn to calligraphy, which fascinated me with endless forms of expression as well as a history rooted in the art of communication. Feeling compelled to illustrate with calligraphy in my book, I enrolled in an apprenticeship and began to learn a smooth style of font known as “Jali Diwani”, which tuned appropriately to the subject of Attar's poem—the birds.

In addition to designing and illustrating the book, I created a design system to enable readers of different cultures and backgrounds to understand the meaning, direction, and flow of calligraphy. This system is the first of its kind, and was created to give non-Arab readers a deeper insight into the complexities of the Arabic text. During our final graduation exhibition in 2007, different people from the creative field came to our gallery to see our art pieces. An editor from the British publishing house Thames and Hudson came and saw my project, and gave me his card with an offer to publish my book. We worked together during the next year to refine the book for publication. The book was published by Thames and Hudson, London, in June 2009 and was sold worldwide. Illustrations from this series of works were introduced at the Arab Week at the European Parliament in Brussels in November 2008, as well as the exhibition “Arabesque”: Art of the Arab World at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in February 2009, and the book tour officially began in May 2009 at the Arts House in Kuwait. It continued in London, Jeddah and New York.

Farah Behbehani 01

2. You studied with the famous Syrian calligrapher and artist Khaled Al-Saei. How did this experience impact your career?

I met Khaled in August 2006 at Al-Hurr Atelier in Kuwait where he was carrying on a calligraphy course. I was in Kuwait on my summer vacation and looking forward to learning the basics of calligraphy before returning to London to continue my master's degree at Central Saint Martin. My knowledge of Arabic calligraphy at that time was little, but I was attracted by its endless beauty and solid roots in Islamic history, art and tradition.

Others told me that it would be very difficult for me to acquire Arabic script writing skills, but Khaled took me under his wing and we started working together from that day on. I owe him so much for everything he taught me. Now I find it difficult to travel to meet him because I am a mother of three, not to mention COVID-19 we are currently living through, but I will always cherish my many visits over the years to his studio in Sharjah. I am so proud that he is my mentor and dear friend.

3. You won an award at the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in 2012. Was this the proudest moment in your career? Tell us about this amazing achievement.

I was invited to participate in the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in April 2012. I presented a monumental piece of art titled “The Tree of Life”, which is based on a verse by the mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj. Al-Hallaj describes the origin of all forms of Arabic letters emanating from a single dot, from which the letters of the alphabet were then born.

“God created a dot; it flew down to form “Alef””

“The dot is the beginning of all forms of Arabic letters, and through the dot God created the letters of the alphabet.”

The piece is created with a series of wooden letters suspended in “Sambuli” font to represent the tree leaves with embroidered fabrics braided resembling the tree bark. This artwork explores the infinite variations of this calligraphic script, with the different letter forms hanging down to create an iconic image of a life-size tree.

The Tree of Life reintroduces everyday subjects in a new form, combining opposites like the sacred and the mundane, the spiritual and the earthly. It was a great honor to receive the Biennial Excellence Award for this piece from His Highness Sheikh Sultan Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah.

Farah Behbehani 02

4. Are you currently working on any new projects?

Yes, I am currently working on a large-scale offshore project. It is an extension of my research for the installation of “In the Presence of Ha”, which was commissioned by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 2018. I am fascinated by the history of Arabic script and the study of how Islamic calligraphy has evolved throughout the Islamic world through the centuries.

5. If you could collaborate on a project with another artist or designer, who would it be and why?

I would like to collaborate with Moroccan artist and photographer Hassan Hajjaj. I have always been interested in photography and feel we can really create a beautiful series of works together.

6. What lessons have you learned from COVID-19?

I learned to express gratitude for all the things we normally take for granted. And that there are always bright sides to every situation we face in our lives. And most of all, patience.

Farah Behbehani 03

7. How does your mother inspire you?

My mother inspires me with more than I can describe. She is one of the most accomplished and hardworking women I’ve ever known. My mother is one of the first Kuwaiti women of her generation to obtain a graduate degree in the United States, graduating with a PhD in geology. Among her many accomplishments, she became the Dean of the College of Graduate Studies at Kuwait University in 1983 and. After many years later she represented Kuwait on the United Nations Compensation Commission in Geneva, where she served for more than 17 years. She is a true leader and has always encouraged me and my sister to think about the future and to be independent. She has a strong moral spirit and always stands up for what she believes in, even if it isn't popular or goes against social norms. Mostly, she is warm and loving and is always there to support her family.

8. How did your mother or parents encourage you to become an artist?

I feel fortunate to have two incredibly supportive parents. My mom and dad always encouraged me to follow my dreams. Although I've always loved being creative, I didn't choose to study art until I graduated from Boston University with a BA in Media and Advertising. In fact, I had no background in design when I decided to get my master's degree from Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London. So, my parents encouraged me to take a one-year course at the University of the Arts in London, where I built a portfolio in design in order to gain admission to the program. Since my first show after graduation, my parents have attended all of my exhibitions and have always been by my side. I am so grateful to both of them for their love and support.

Farah Behbehani 05

9. What is your first or favorite memory about your mother's style?

My mother has always been very elegant and balanced. As a child I remember how she used to let her hair down naturally and how her smile always brightened up the room. As a working mom, my memories of her dressing style are that she was usually in a jacket and pants, so it was always very special when she got dressed up. One of my favorite memories is of her wearing a long pink Gianfranco Ferre gown, looking effortlessly beautiful.

10. As a mother of twin girls and a boy, how would you describe your parenting style?

It is important for me to raise my children to be inquisitive, open-minded and cultured. I try to introduce them to arts, music, sports, different cultures and languages. I would say my parenting style is quite independent. We listen to a lot of music and dance together every day. I play with them and try to get involved in their activities, and we read together books that trigger their imaginations.

11. Describe a typical day in the life of Farah Behbehani.

I meditate after getting up every morning for 10-20 minutes. I usually have a light breakfast and then spend some time with my kids. What I love about what I do is that it is never still. I'm always exploring new ideas and I’m always open to trying different tools, so my schedule often changes. I've been working recently with paper sculptures and taking Islamic geometry courses online. I usually work from home, but I also do research in “Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya” library in Yarmouk from time to time. I have lunch around 1.30 pm every day with my kids. Then I spend some time either working on a project or running the embroidery studio I established two years ago. I try to spend late afternoons with Mohamed, Lana, and Leah when I'm not overwhelmed with projects. Our favorite outing is going to the park and spending time in nature outdoors. My husband and I also take them cycling in our neighborhood or nearby areas when the weather is lovely. We usually have dinner at 6:30 pm and the kids go to bed around 8 pm. They love to read stories with me before bed and then I finally have time to relax. I am a fan of documentaries and I love watching movies based on real stories.

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