Mohamed Rahmouni: « I want my art to stand as an ambassador of the Arabic culture and civilization »

Mohamed Rahmouni is a Tunisian street artist who moved to France in 2017. He aspires to revive the Arabic culture through his art and to overcome the challenges that come with an artist’s experience abroad.

During one of my visits to 59 Rivoli, I had the chance to speak to sevaral artists who were upholding their ateliers there. Mohamed Rahmouni, was one of the most interesting “visiting artist » in the building. A very down to earth and open-minded person who loves what he does. His talent, his personality as well as his « story » intrigued me to learn more about him.

What is the difference between Calligraphy and Calligraffiti?

Calligraphy is the art of beautiful handwriting. It is an ancient writing technique that is used to create artistic lettering. Calligraffiti is simply a new and recent art form that blends modern graffiti, calligraphy and street art. It is a visual art that creates an equal balance between seeing and reading words and images. I started my career as an artist in calligraphy and street art but what I am currently doing is Calligraffiti.

« In Jerusalem ». Rahmouni’s piece reads the famous peom of Mahmoud Darwich In Jerusalem. © Mohamed Rahmouni

When did you start to be interested in Calligraffiti?

The passion for Calligraffiti began with my interest in handwritings, then in Calligraphy and street art. This has paved the way to me to eventually start a career in Calligraffiti. My first encounter with this style of art was through El seed, a French-Tunisian artist who creates large-scale ‘calligraffiti’ murals across the world.  His beautiful murals inspired me to start working on my first Calligraffiti canvas in 2013.

How do you work your composition?

Every Calligraffiti artist has his own style. There isn’t a certain script that you can just learn by referencing letters. It actually tends to be abstract and different from calligraphy. Calligraffiti gives the artist more freedom as there are no rules to follow. However, it does demand an overall vision from the artist after all; starting from the message he is trying to convey, to the shape of the letters, to the colors he uses, to the larger picture he is creating. The process endured to attend the result is what differs from an artist to another.

Do you have a favourite piece? And which materials do you prefer to work with?

The Victor’s vision. It is one of my recent works. It is purely inspired by autumn. I worked with the colors of the autumn and I am aiming to integrate proverbs that I wrote myself in this piece. It is still not completely finished as I am taking all my time to work on it. As for materials, I believe that different tools and mediums will produce distinct results. I personally use acrylic on canvas, flat brushes, and Indian ink. I also love to work with watercolor; the color blending that you get from the ink is very neat. The choice behind working with brushes is that they give more texture to the stokes than an automatic pen.

Does poetry represent an essential element in your work?

Yes. Like most of Calligraffiti artists, I often integrate poems in my compositions; Mahmoud Darwich’s poems more specifically. I can’t deny that he stands as the main source of inspiration for my works. He He is a landmark in Arab literacy history who is regarded as the Palestinian national poet. He has always addressed controversial and complex subjects; language, homeland, roots and ancestors, culture, tradition and so on.

What is the motive behind going overseas and starting a new experience in a completely foreign environment?

Going abroad meant aiming for new opportunities, meeting a larger audience and making my work known internationally. It is not a necessity but very important for an artist to mature professionally. The diversity of the culture, the different language and the entire change serve as a great inspiration for creativity and innovation.

Is that what happened when you came to France, or was the reality different?

I can’t deny that a huge part of my expectations was fulfilled.  For instance, 59 Rivoli offered me an encounter with a large audience. I had the opportunity to expose my work, to exchange with people, and to explain my art. I also had the chance to work in a multicultural environment. Other artists helped me with their long and weighty artistic experiences, opinions, and feedbacks. With all the challenges that come with it, I can’t deny that moving to France opened a large door of opportunities to me. If you look into the right places, get armed with great volition, never throw the towel, you’d probably make it at the end.

We say that the language of art speaks to everyone, everywhere. Did the audience here in France understood your art?

Overall, yes. The audience do usually appreciate my work and the beauty of my art. They’re often moved and intrigued by what is written and its meaning. The difference is that when exposing to an Arabic audience, people understand my work on a deeper level as they can read what’s written. On the other hand, foreign audiences are first caught by the beauty of the letters and the colors then they dig for a deeper meaning by looking up the written text. So yes, in general, I think that my message through my art is being partly touched and felt despite some few cases where my work is misinterpreted of course. For instance, it happens when some people are blocked by my Arabic origins. I basically do Arabic Calligraffitti with Arabic letters and text. People recognize that immediately and sometimes it stands as a barrier for them.

Have you ever tried to address that through your work?

Indirectly, yes. Most of my work discusses Arabic history. My inspirations are mainly drown from my roots and the Arab civilization, which is one of the oldest cultures in the world. Yet it has been reduced to stereotypes that unfortunately exist around Islam. My goal through my art is to break these stereotypes and revive the Arabic culture and tradition. I want people to associate Arabs with something beautiful and positive. I want the world to see the beauty of the Arabic language, its fascinating letters, and its forceful poetry with its strong linguistic construction. I believe that racism is the other face of ignorance, it can only be fought by education, love and peace. This is why I want my art to stand as an ambassador of the Arabic culture and civilization.

Any specific memorable responses you have had to your work?

I had many great responses to my work but one that stuck in my mind isn’t very cheerful. It happened without a word, just a gesture that said it all. While I was still residing at 59 Rivoli, a woman with her daughter passed by my workshop and once she noticed my mural, she immediately covered her daughter’s eyes with her hands murmuring “close your eyes, this is Quran” and then rushed out of the workshop.  I was terribly shocked and disappointed. I couldn’t believe that there are still some people that would relate everything that is written in Arabic to religion and eventually to something inappropriate that should be prohibited. The text in my mural wasn’t a religious one but a poem, indeed.

One would assume that this space is supposed to be frequented by people who love art or at least who are open minded even if they don’t have an artistic background.

The free entrance to the building which was originally aimed to enable a democratic access to art leads sometimes to these clashes. As artists, we’re usually prepared for both good and bad feedback. Anyhow, I have to say that it’s less comprehensive when people judge the merit of your work based on who you are and not on your art itself.

How did covid19 affect you? How did it influence your agenda as an artist?

Luckily enough, I finished my residence in 59 Rivoli exactly before the lockdown. If my stay there was programmed for the period of the quarantine which was the case for many artists, I would have lost the opportunity to expose my work. I consider myself very lucky in that perspective. After 59 Rivoli, I was planning to display my work elsewhere which wasn’t possible with the lockdown or even after. Therefore, the current situation is steering me toward going back to work in metallic construction again.

How did you manage to keep working during the lockdown? Did you get any kind of support from the cultural world?

At the beginning, I couldn’t work. I was depressed, I assume that was the case of everyone else around the globe. But once I realized that the situation is not likely to change very soon, I tried to find a way to get inspired despite the circumstances. I employed the large free time that I had in reading and researching. Eventually, I went back to work. Moreover, I didn’t get any financial help as I don’t belong to any cultural institution. I’ve always worked for myself. Some artists created WhatsApp groups and organized video sessions. However, as much as I am concerned, I wanted to live this experience alone. It’s just the way I felt it. I tend to share things, to be open to the world, but this time I felt that staying alone was the right thing to do.

According to your experience here in France, do you think that an artist can easily succeed in a foreign country?  

I believe that artists always need to travel outside their homelands to display their skills. It’s maybe more difficult for an artist to achieve success in a foreign country but it isn’t impossible. You’ll have to double the efforts as you’re in a sort of « strange environment ». However, as an artist abroad, you have the chance to benefit from the diversity of culture and the international creative exchange. If you know how to take advantage of these things, to make good use of online resources, to understand your audience and adapt your art to their needs without losing the core of your work, you would probably succeed. A road bump here and there doesn’t have to derail you or detract you from your overall experience abroad.

Thank you Mohamed!

Imane Adouay

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