Her Royal Highness Princess Wijdan F. Al-Hashemi tells Selections about her painting, rooted in Arabic calligraphy, and why a country without art has no past and no future

Her Royal Highness Princess Wijdan F. Al-Hashemi has dedicated her life to art. In addition to being a practicing artist, with work in prominent museums and private collections, she is the founder of the Royal Society of Fine Arts and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, as well as the founder and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan. Her passion dates back a long way.

She read history at university in Beirut but at the same time studied art privately. She later combined these two passions when she completed a PhD in Islamic Art in London. She has written several books on Islamic art, and her research fed into her work as an artist.

“An artist, like most people, is influenced by the slightest events in life as well as by the major events,” she says. “I believe that my interest in the art of calligraphy was born from my studies and research in Islamic art. Eventually, classical Arabic calligraphy took over my art and I consecrated my style in painting to interpreting calligraphic shapes and at times mixing them with abstract forms.”

To this end, she created her own style and approach. “I believe classical writing is so perfect that one cannot improve on it,” she explains. “However, I did use what I call ‘Calligraphitee’ which is free hand in writing the letters, words and sentences with a personal form of handwriting. It is a script that interprets the alphabet without adhering to any rules that conduct classical calligraphy. However, I also used regulated forms of writing in my art work depending on the subject and the composition.”

As an artist, Princess Wijdan is well-placed to reflect on the challenges facing the artistic community. In the 1970s, noticing a void that needed to be addressed, she took on the challenging role of founding institutions that would provide support for artists from the Middle East and beyond. In 1979, the Royal Society of Fine Arts came into being, followed a year later by the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts.

In its early days, the gallery’s permanent collection numbered just 77 works of art. Today, the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts occupies two major buildings, a total of 3685 square metres, which flank a 7500-square-metre sculpture park. Its permanent collection comprises more than 2850 works from the Islamic world, Central America, Asia, Africa and Australia. To date, it has held around 190 exhibitions abroad. Women Artists from the Islamic World, for example, toured Asia, Europe, Australia and the U.S. for over five years.

Princess Wijdan’s passion for art extends to her belief in its power to shape communities. “Art has an important role in the development of a country, any country, and in several fields,” she says. “A country that has no art has no past, present or future. Art plays numerous roles: educational, social, political, economic, as well as religious. A society that has no art has no bread to eat or air to breathe. Unfortunately, there are such societies in our world.”

To this end, she has dedicated much time and thought to making sure that art is accessible to those outside wealthy urban circles. “In most countries in the world, especially the Developing World, art is a luxury for the elite,” she says. “However, barriers are being pulled down to include a larger segment of the people who will be exposed to art. The Touring Museum of the Jordan National Gallery [aims] to introduce art to children and adults in the provinces outside the capital.” Run by artist Suhail Baqain, a van that has been converted into a gallery visits schools in villages and towns outside the capital to introduce children to works by Jordanian artists. So far it has visited 517 sites.

The gallery is also working on establishing a new initiative called Art in the Park, to be held in the sculpture garden. “I have a few plans to popularise art among the young and not so young,” Princess Wijdan says. “However, I and many who believe in art as part of life will persevere in our quest to spread beauty all around.”

Featured image: H.R.H. Princess Wijdan F. Al-Hashemi

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, pages 52-53.