Saturday, May 19, 2012

Interview with Graphic Designer: Joumana Medlej






Beauty, which the knower appreciates and a lover admires, is worshiped by the mystic. It is useless to try to put into words what beauty is, but if anything can explain it, it is the other word for beauty and that is harmony. It is the harmonious combination of colors, the harmonious grouping of  lines, and the harmonious blending of the objects of nature that suggest to us the idea of beauty. In order to be beautiful an object must be harmonious, for in point of fact, harmony is beauty.

If there is anything in the world that makes man unconscious of himself, in other words that makes him lose his self-consciousness, if there is anything that makes man humble, that makes him surrender willingly, it is beauty. Beauty is something that conquers without a sword, that holds without hands, that is more tender then the petals of a flower and stronger then anything in the world. The Prophet has said, 'God is Beauty and He loves what is beautiful.'
~ Sufi Mystic Inayat Khan on Beauty and Harmony (credit)


The hidden harmony is stronger than the visible.
~ Greek philosopher Heraclitus


It was the beautiful and harmonious calligraphy works of Joumana Medlej that suddenly appeared when I was searching for some artwork on the internet. The exceptional beauty that Joumana's work bring with a very fresh style immediately captured my heart and I wanted to know more about the artist. Soon I discovered that Joumana Medlej is a leading Graphic Designer and Illustrator from Lebanon who not only does contemporary Arabic calligraphy but she is also a designer for video games, has publisher her own Graphic Novel and she is also an accomplish travel writer. When I was browsing her collection of calligraphic designs I noticed that most of them were accomplished by beautiful and captivating quotation from various Sufi Masters, from classical to modern mystics. That was when I was inspired to conduct a sohbet or interview with Joumana Medlej. What follows is an email interview with Joumana where she shares about her work, inspiration, calligraphy and technology. Don't forget to explore her beautiful works from the links provided at the end of this piece.


Sadiq: Please tell a little about yourself and your work.

Joumana: I'm trained as a graphic designer, with a preference for illustration in which I'm self-taught. Currently I design videogames and publish children's books, alongside more personal projects such as a comic book, art tutorials, icon sets, and of course Arabic calligraphy.

Since when you seriously started your creative career?

I've had many serious starts, really! Each in a different direction as I looked for my own thing in the creative fields. But you could say it started when I decided to study and work in a creative field, when I was 17 and chose graphic design as a major. I've always been more of an artist than a designer, but I felt it would give me the tools to be self-sufficient in any creative field necessary as I made a place for myself, and it has.

What is your most favorite source of inspiration ?

Life is altogether inspiring. There's nothing out there that can't plant the seed of an idea in me, even though I can only act on some of them. I get a lot of inspiration from my travels, from nature, from my dreams, and from unexpected and uncontrollable things such as the way a building ages and decays.

Calligrapher: Samir Sayegh
You do very interesting Arabic calligraphy. What made you interested in it? What is unique about it?

For many years now I have worked for and with master calligrapher Samir Sayegh as an assistant. Through him, by the sheer amount of hands-on work I got to do on letter forms, the "knowledge of letters" opened up to me – I use here Ibn Arabi's term ('ilm al-huruf) because nothing describes it better, as it is between art and science but it's beyond either. No other script in existence (and I have studied many, being one of my interests) behaves the way Arabic does and can be manipulated in the same way.

Early scribes of Arabic, in the early Islamic period, did not use it for functional reasons, since they relied on memorization of their sacred texts. Instead they were aware that they were giving a visual form to the words of Revelation, so they developed it along very different lines than, say, Latin. It's difficult to describe rationally how the result functions, I can do no better than call it magic – something extraordinary that unfolds before our eyes but that logic cannot explain or create.

You mentioned in an interview once how Arabic calligraphy has strong relationship with geometry.  Could you please explain a bit?

Yes, Kufi in particular is intimately related to geometry since it is constructed, not traced with the hand. Each letter can be manipulated quite extensively, but contains a geometric essence that makes it recognizable, and that needs to be respected by the artist. When one works with this essence, or rather as this essence dictates, one sees geometry unfold in unpredictable ways that always fit the right way. Geometry underlies the universe, it's why it was a sacred science in the past, which is now long forgotten, but the Arabic script still has the power to plug into this matrix and sing in tune with it. This is why it speaks so powerfully to those who look at it even if they can't read a single letter.

I noticed many of you calligraphy are accompanied by quotes from well known sufi masters.  How did you discover them?

Gradually in my readings along the years, and for some of them I had no idea they were Sufis until recently – it's amazing how much this path has permeated, even generated, philosophy and the arts in the Arabo-Islamic world. My mentor asserts that calligraphy is a Sufi art as the great calligraphers of the past were usually Sufis and this influenced its development.  Also, take any Arabic word pertaining to spirituality, religion, or philosophy, and you can find Sufi wisdom on it. So they keep popping up and one leads to another; by now I have collected enough writings and sayings to know where to look wen I need a quote (I always look for one when I complete a piece, to accompany it.) It's a two-way process now as I get inspiration from these masters' teachings, in turn.

On Dhikr Joumana Quotes: "The perfect mystic is not an ecstatic devotee lost in contemplation of Oneness, nor a saintly recluse shunning all commerce with mankind, but “the true saint” goes in and out amongst the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment." ~ Abu Said ibn Abi-l-Khayr

You create beautiful tutorials for illustration. Could please share the steps involved in a calligraphy?

Every calligrapher has his method, of course, that depends on the nature of his composition and materials. For me, it starts with cutting the paper into a square, and marking the median lines. Then I build the composition in pencil, paint it, trace the outlines, and gild it last. Sometimes I have to take these steps in a different order, if a piece presents some complexities, but that's roughly it. The very last step is varnishing, if necessary.

The Process of "Dhikr" (final form in previous image) becoming a design (see more)

Your style is very modern or contemporary. How do you achieve that with an art form which is quite traditional and for those who wish to achieve it in other fields, what is your advice for them? Is there a secret to this?

I've acquired a strong familiarity with the essence of the Kufi letters and that's what allows me to create very modern and/or personal representations of them that still feels rooted in tradition. I learned this from ustadh Sayegh, but there is no verbal or intellectual teaching involved: one has to work with them and work with them and work with them until they're second nature. The secret is immersion, there are no shortcuts. Those who wish to achieve this need to simply do it with their full passion and for a long time. As this happens naturally and effortlessly when one is truly enamored with a domain, there's no need to wonder how to achieve it, it'll just happen. Just don't think you can get results if you're not motivated enough to give yourself to it fully.

A glimpse at Joumana's workspace

Now a days a lot of artists are using technology and specially Internet, how do you see the marriage between creativity, beauty and technology?

Artists have always used technology. A couple of centuries ago, tubed paint was cutting edge technology, as earlier they had to make their own paint! So I don't see anything happening now that has not been continually happening since the early days of art. Creativity has always pounced on new techniques and materials to broaden its range of expression. What is really interesting about today however is the internet, in terms of sharing one's creativity. Never before has distance been so irrelevant, or art been so accessible to so many at no cost. That alone has helped trigger a creativity boom as ideas and how-to's are now just a click away.

I came to know that you have quite an active dream life. Do you write down your dreams? Do you incorporate message from dreams to your work, if yes, how?

Ah yes, dreams are very meaningful to me as a tool for knowing oneself, and I always write them down and take the time to understand them. A lot of my inspiration comes from my dreams (for instance recently I made a piece from the word Ramz, after dreaming that I met a Persian poet by that name), and inversely I sometimes see my work in my dreams in ways that give it a new meaning. Because dreams come from within, their guidance adds something to my work that comes from a deeper place than the solutions offered by the intellect.

Great many poets/ artists are deeply influenced by Sufi message. How much do you drink from sufi ideas? Does your comic Malaak has certain sufic ideas into it?

It's hard to quantify this because, as I'm finding out, Sufism is incredibly pervasive in our Middle-eastern cultures, and also very discreet. I can think of a few examples of people or notions that inspired me deeply and it's only years later that I discovered they were connected to Sufism. I'm pretty sure by now that all of the Near and Middle East was shaped and built by Sufism, which is a way of being in the world as much as it is a personal spirituality, and that the area is dying in terrible throes because we have lost it, and sometimes actively destroyed it. As for my comic Malaak, I have been very startled lately to find that ideas I had put into it could also be found in Sufi teachings. But then again, when I started writing it, I based my entire research about the Jinn on Ibn Arabi's writings, and that was my first encounter with him and I had no idea he had anything to do with Sufism. So from the beginning, that was there unbeknownst to me.


You have been using internet for quite some time now? You began using it since 1997? How do you view its changes and potentiality?

It's fantastic, people don't realize what a blessing it is, but they would if it happened to disappear. It's the first time in our history that we can experience humanity beyond time or space. Reaching out to someone or to a piece of info online is as easy as sending a neural signal to a part of our body to move it. Perhaps, thanks to it, future generations will have a different mindset from ours, being born in a world where everyone is connected, not separated.

Darvish Icon Set by Joumana

As a person who adore beauty in many of its form, do you have any vision of how technology will influence our life and those who are interested in transmitting realizations (be it realization of simple beauty around us or alike) or consciousness? Could you please share your ideas revolving around this.

I think that depends on how smart we are about it. Technology right now is a "weapon of mass distraction", and if we allow it to proliferate in that sense, we're on a losing ticket. Consciousness can devolve and probably is devolving as we speak. As long as people spend more time seeking entertainment than looking within, we're using technology to our disadvantage. But it doesn't have to be that way if we show a little more awareness in our lives. Also I think that anything we can build in the outer world (such as technology) is only a weaker reflection of our inner potential. If we devoted more time to developing that, maybe we'd reach a point where we look at all those advanced gadgets and laugh that we ever needed such crutches when we can fly on our own...


(All art work used here are by Joumana Medlej)


# References & more:
* Official Website of Joumana Medlej
* Calligraphy of Joumana 
* Calligraphy with Sufic Themes

* Malaak: Angel of Peace / Graphic novel by Joumana Medlej (you can read it online)
* About Joumana via Malaak site
* Lebanese Comics: Malaak
* Malaak 4: Marked by Fire

* Interview: Joumana Medlej @ Marmalade Moon
* Interview: Joumana @ Lebrecord
* Artist of the Month: an interview with Joumana Medlej

* Publications by Joumana
* Encountering Samir Sayegh, Master Calligrapher
* Joumana Medlej's Page on Facebook
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