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Tajammul Hussein
Text and photos by Bizzie Frost
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 27 - 05 - 2010

born Syed Tajammul Hussain embarked on a career after completing his A levels in the UK, it was on a path that his family had chosen for him: Accountancy. This was something “sensible”, unlike the creative path of an artist that his heart was steering him on. His older sister was training to be a graphic designer and it was by observing her that Hussain started to paint.
“I started with miniatures because I saw my sister painting Mughal miniatures – she was studying Mughal miniature paintings for her Masters Thesis. I was in my teens at that time (1968) and I was fascinated. Seeing this interest, my Pakistani art teacher nurtured it and so when I came to London to do my accountancy, she gave me a letter of introduction to the Keeper of the British Library and Museum's Oriental Department, the late Dr. Martin Lings. So here was I, a teenager who appeared in the British Museum and said ‘I wish to see Dr. Lings'. I think they looked at me with some horror because you don't just walk in there and demand to see the Director – especially if you are a teenager. But I gave them the letter and within five minutes he was down.”
Realizing Hussain's genuine interest, Dr. Lings gave him the much-prized membership of the British Library. Fortunately, the firm to which Hussain was articled as a trainee accountant was only two blocks away from the British Museum, so his lunch times and weekends were spent researching and painting. “Then in 1976, there was a ‘World of Islam Festival' which was opened by the Sheikh Al-Azar and HM Queen Elizabeth. There was a series of exhibitions from the Islamic world which included the great (Holy) Qur'an exhibition of the British Museum and Library, as well as manuscripts that had been sourced from all over the world. That was a life-changing event for me. I gave up miniature painting as I was fascinated by the Qur'anic illuminations and the scripts.”
A teacher then arrived out of the blue in the form of the father of a close friend from Iran. “His name was Hossain Vagehfi and he was a director from the Iranian Tobacco Company. Practising calligraphy in his spare time was his passion. I had put up a calligraphic work by the last of the great Ottoman masters in my room and on entering, he said: ‘This is the great Hamed! Where did you get it?' Then he saw my paintings and told me that if I could paint, I could write.”
Every time Vagehfi returned from Tehran, he would bring Hussain material to study. Hussain became well versed in classical calligraphic styles such as Thuluth, Kufic and Muhaqqaq, as well as others. His learning curve accelerated when, about 10 years later, he met the late Yasin Safidi, Dr. Lings' successor, at a conference. “He said that the British Museum always gets assignments from foreign collectors and museums and there were collections with incomplete (Holy) Qur'an manuscripts that he wanted me to work on. They supplied the aged vellum and he said I would have to do the design and calligraphic inscriptions...I learned how to use pigments and textures with a great deal of personal experimentation.”
I asked Hussain to explain about ‘vellum': “It is made from the skin of sheep, or calves, or gazelles. It is scraped, cleaned and stretched out and it was used extensively as ‘paper' not only in the Islamic world, but also in Roman scrolls and western manuscripts, until paper was introduced. The Arabs then learned their paper-making skills from their Chinese prisoners of war taken in the Battle of Talas in the eight century, and this then spread to the Western world.”
He went on to learn about different types of paper and how to ‘size' and treat them using old Ottoman techniques of wheat starch, tea washes, gum Arabic, egg white and burnishing.
The use of gold is an extremely laborious and time consuming and expensive process and Hussain says: “I am one of a handful of people in the world who knows how to handle it. All my paintings are gilded – they make lavish use of gold – every single one of them.”
He paints in his apartment in London, often having to work with a magnifying glass because some of the work is so fine, and he finds it is best to apply gold at night, after 9 P.M., when temperatures are cool and stable.
Research is a continuous part of Hussain's work and he will not stop until he has found what he is searching for. “It took me six trips to Damascus to locate a manuscript by Salahudin Ayyubi, to get permission to see it, study it, and then photograph it.” Hussain continued as a part-time artist until, almost 12 years after working with Yasin Safidi, he met Professor James Allan, the Keeper of Eastern art at the Ashmolean Museum, part of the University of Oxford. “After seeing my work, and putting me through a rigorous six hour cross-examination, Prof. Allan said: ‘I am going to give you a year to prepare for an exhibition. You've recovered knowledge lost in the mists of time. I also expect you to give a series of lectures.'”
In order to prepare for that exhibition, he gave up his accountancy career and became a full-time artist. His work has since been collected by some of the leading museums in the world.
Through the Ashmolean Museum and the Barakat Trust, he was put in touch with the Athr Gallery in Jeddah and an exhibition of 33 paintings was arranged. The exhibition will run until June 10 and Hussain will also be giving a series of lectures.
Athr Gallery is located in the Serafi Mega Mall on Tahlia Street, opposite IKEA.

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