The artworks featured in this article are ‘Noon Arockaa’ held in a foreign Embassy in Bahrain and ‘The Letter Ain: Motion in Four Dimensions (1991) is held in the collection of the Artist.
Dr James W Allan is the Keeper of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
An exhibition of the works of a contemporary Arab artist such as Ali Omar Ermes needs some preliminary introduction to a British audience. For his painting has its ultimate source, not in the more familiar traditions of the western world, but the Muslim Arab culture of the Near East and North Africa. To Muslims, divine revelation is enshrined in the Quran, revealed through the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). That revelation is written in Arabic and, as such, is a transcription of an Arabic Quran which exists in heaven eternally. Hence, the Arabic words of the Quran have an incomparable significance and holiness, far surpassing, for example, the reverence in the past according to the text of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) in western Christianity. By extension, Arabic word and letterforms, in general, have innate holiness, and the art of Arabic calligraphy takes on unique significance as the artist seeks the perfect curves, the perfect proportions, the perfect spacing of letters for this most holy language.
Having made this point, however, it would be quite wrong to equate Ali Omar Ermes with the traditional Arabic calligraphers. As in so many art forms of earlier centuries, calligraphers of the Islamic past were trained to copy the style of their master, and only when they had achieved his perfection could they move forward to create his own individual contribution to the art form. Working with pen and ink they were also constrained by the physical limitations of their materials. Hence, Arabic calligraphy was a highly circumscribed art form, of the greatest beauty, but also of the strictest limitations.
Ermes, however, does not claim to be a calligrapher, but rather a painter. He makes the point on a number of his works. For example, he notes on one canvas that its letterforms are in a painted style, and he entitles a number of other paintings Decorative composition on the basis of the letter…This identification of himself as a painter allows Ermes much greater freedom than is permitted to a calligrapher. The brush itself unveils new avenues of approach. Thus the break in the line of the magnificent purple Ba on a completely undecorated white ground is unthinkable in pure calligraphy, but the brush has opened up this simple but dynamic possibility to the artist. In another composition (‘A composition of Letters, Signs and Emphasis 1991) Ermes feels free to use different calligraphic styles side by side, again using the painter’s freedom of interpretation of traditional values. And sometimes, as in the composition based on three vertical groupings of three meems, he weaves the letters of his foreground so tightly into their background that they become a rhythm-like river, and almost cease to have a calligraphic identity. But it needs again to be reiterated: Arabic letterforms are the basis of Ermes’ paintings, and as such, they speak volumes about his beliefs, about the culture from which he comes, and about the ultimate source of his inspiration.
Pursuing our painterly theme, Ermes is then free to explore whatever paint and the paint-brush have to offer. He explores colour, sometimes in simple contrasts of light and dark, or by varying complementary and contrasting tones, by separating foreground and background, or by drawing them together through different colour emphases. A study of the letters Seen, Sheen, Ssad and Dhad presents the letters in black floating on a metallic, cloud-like ground, but draws together the two elements – the foreground and the background – by adding particular colours to the letterforms, thereby creating a new harmony between the image and its ground. Texture, too, fascinates Ermes. He often uses the word silk as he talks about his paintings, and many of his textures do indeed have a silky quality which enriches them visually and makes one want to run one's fingers over them.
Ermes, however, is not simply a painter, for his paintings have another aspect which takes them outside the mainstream of standard artistic expression. Having begun life as a poet, he now uses Arabic literary quotations as part of his compositions. This is a theme which is explored in Venetia Porter’s contribution to this brochure and is of vital importance if we are to understand his artistic purposes.
The host of the present exhibition of Ermes’ work is the Ashmolean Museum. The museum's Department of Eastern Art has a very fine collection of early Islamic works of art, and as part of the University of Oxford, its role is not only to display Islamic art but to support and encourage research and above all to teach. The study of Islamic art in a university environment is normally directed towards its earlier manifestations: the period of its earliest development under the Umayyads in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, its great classical period under the Abbasids in the 9th and 10th. Dynasties such as the Ottoman Turks, the Safavids in Iran, or the Mughals in India, provide the raw material for our appreciation of later Islamic art, but all too often our interests fail to move forward with the times. Islamic art is not dead, and as long as Islam remains, so will Islamic art. The problem of today is how to recognise Islamic art, or, to put it from the artist’s point of view, how to express art in a form which enables it to be recognised, understood and appreciated as something essentially Islamic, but with a universal message.
A few years ago the Ashmolean put on a small exhibition of modern Arab prints. Drawn from all over the Arab world, they showed a tremendous variation in artistic background and approach from the various artists represented. Some were unashamedly western abstract; others were naturalistic landscapes; others used combinations of postage stamps and moulded designs; still, others were variations on traditional geometric calligraphic designs. One had the impression of Arab art trying to desperately to find itself in the modern world, but quite uncertain where to look.
Where does the identity of contemporary Islamic art lie? Where is it to be found? To such questions, there is no single answer, and a whole host of possible answers could be suggested. From the perspective of the outsider, however, it is perhaps worth putting forward on a possible solution. For to me, as a western Christian curator of Islamic art collections, it is above all in Arabic calligraphy that Islamic identity belongs. And it is my belief that it is the ability of contemporary artists to express that calligraphic tradition in a contemporary way that will bring Islamic art once again into the forefront of artistic expression worldwide. That is why I am so keen that the Ashmolean Museum should exhibit the art of such painters such as Ali Omar Ermes.