Syrian calligrapher is Mason’s 2022 Artist-in-Residence


Abdulrahman “Abi” Naanseh studied interior design at Damascus University in Syria, but his true passion is art, specifically Arabic calligraphy.

“It’s lines, it’s abstract,” he said. “You make shapes and people try to understand those shapes.”

bearded man standing before artwork talking to audience
Abi Naanseh's exhibit moves to the Gillespie Gallery in the Art and Design Building on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, in late August. Photo by Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications

In 2017, Naanseh left Syria and relocated to Lebanon to escape the violence of the Syrian civil war. Two years later, he applied for an Artist Protection Fund (APF) fellowship in order to pursue his art freely. He was accepted to APF in 2020, but his residency was delayed due to the pandemic.

That same year, Naanseh witnessed the accidental explosion of a large amount of ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut that reportedly killed at least 200 people and injured thousands.

man making art at table
Abi Naanseh learned about calligraphy from his father and has been practicing this skill for 22 years. Photo by Cristian Torres/Strategic Communications

Today, Naanseh is an APF Fellow and the 2022 Artist-in-Residence in George Mason University’s School of Art, where he is able to practice his craft without the dangers he would face if he were to do so in his home country.

His exhibit, Pressure/Movement/Effect, has calligraphic themes and can be seen through August 6 at Mason Exhibitions on the university’s Mason Square campus in Arlington. His show moves to the Gillespie Gallery in the Art and Design Building on Mason’s Fairfax Campus, where it will run from August 22 to October 14.

Naanseh learned about calligraphy from his father and has been practicing this skill for 22 years. Arabic calligraphy goes back thousands of years and, unlike other forms of art, is not banned in the Islamic culture.

He now uses it throughout his artistic process along with Arabic haiku poetry. His writing, and the symbolism it represents, are hidden within the calligraphy.

Naanseh enjoys practicing art from other cultures as well, but the challenges that people in his homeland face every day are still at the forefront of his mind.

“The troubles with the wars in Syria, the community, and everything with the government, pushed me to make something new. That’s what I’ve started to work on,” he explained. Naanseh said he uses layers and colors in hopes of iterating the idea of freedom because he, like many others from Syria, felt pressured by the government to submit to dictatorial ways.

He said of the three words—pressure, movement, and effect—that are used to describe his exhibit: “In Syria, in 1970, there was something called the Correction Movement, and it was the worst movement in the history of Syria. It destroyed the country, and I make these pieces to remember this movement.”

Naanseh said he tries to simultaneously bring awareness to the political issues going on in Syria while also comforting those who are most affected by it.

Don Russell, university curator at the School of Art, has guided Naanseh throughout his time at Mason, providing support through resources and a sense of community.

“We have a couple of programs that bring artists here,” Russell said. “We do research residencies where artists come to research a certain topic, and we connect them with resources at the university or in Washington, D.C.”

Naanseh, who has been hard at work since he arrived at Mason, has created 90 pieces for his current exhibit. Although only 51 of those pieces are featured, the exhibit shows the talent and dedication that Naanseh has put into his art.

“Everyone is different… and I try to translate that with my work,” Naanseh said. “I always try to be free, and this way I can make my own rules.”