The artwork featured in this article is (by order of appearance) Iqra – Read! (1991) acquired by the Centre for Islamic Studies, Malaysia; Kaf – Power of Expression (1991) held in the Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C; and – The Positive La (1990) acquired by a private collector.
Riad Nourallah is Senior Lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of London.
Seeing Ali Omar Ermes in his studio with brush flowing on paper, one cannot but recall the uncanny ease and confidence with which the great painters move their brushes on canvas or accomplished dancers move their bodies on stage, a deceptive ease about which education and training can offer only a partial explanation, and a confidence that seems to mock our daily doubts and countless stumbles and hesitations. And though one has to acknowledge every artist’s, and Ermes’ own, indebtedness to a long and rich tradition, one will inevitably be reminded of T.S. Eliot’s image of a museum (as a metaphor for a nation’s and by extension the world’s cultural heritage) being reorganized, enhanced and updated by every new talent and contribution.
The deeply felt sense of the sacred with which Muslim calligraphers (even ordinary scribes) in the classical age of Islam, and throughout the Islamic world, traditionally approached their work is well-known. They, for a start, would perform ritualistic purification (wudu’) as though in preparation for the prescribed prayers (salat) before they could pen, draw, or engrave the letters of the Arabic alphabet, already sanctified as the building blocks of the Holy Text, which could be touched or recited only by the pure and the undefiled. Albeit a somewhat elaborate prelude, this was but a mere point of entry into a world full of possibilities and pitfalls, and whose promises and perils, only the brave and the adept, but also the reverent and courteous, could negotiate. And, on top of, and above all that, there was always God, the Ever Wakeful Witness and Arbiter, whose recompense was far greater than that of the wealthy patron or the avuncular guild master, since that reward would encompass both this world and the one to come. And though All-Compassionate and All-Forgiving, He will expect the artist to perform at his or her best, since the pursuit of Itqan (excellence or faultlessness) is the duty of every worker and conscientious human being a duty rewarded, as attested in a hadith, by Allah’s special love and grace. Perfection belongs to God alone, of course, and though an artist, an engraver, or a carpet weaver, might scale the very summit of their art, they would, out of humility to the Godhead, introduce into their physically earthbound product a blemish or a flaw, which, while loudly acknowledging, to the divine perception, the supremacy of the One, who is the embodiment and source of all perfection, would not be easily detected except by the keenest and most expert of human eyes.
That passion and reverence for excellence, which informed Arab civilisation in its heyday and gave it the drive, intellectual curiosity and tolerance, as well as humility, to interact with other civilisations and construct, in partnership with them, that wonderful cultural mosaic which for several centuries shaped and permeated the various art forms from Spain to Indonesia, was to lose its vigour and lapse into a protracted period of intellectual stagnation and stupor, in which the fear of innovation and contamination cast its shadow on varied spheres of civilisational pursuit. Nonetheless, art, though equally affected, continued to imbibe the genii loci of the many localities in which Muslims lived, adding to the diversity of that wide-ranging presence, at times arriving at such unexpected places as a chapel in Palermo and a cathedral in Apt. But it was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries of the Christian era, when Arab and Muslim lands came into contact with an ascendant West, that Arabs and Muslims were galvanised into a response. Though cataclysmic and, to the Arab and Muslim peoples, detrimental in certain ways, that encounter was to lead to an awakening to the new realities in the world, which, ironically, the Arab and Muslim civilisation had helped to bring about in the late Middle Ages but had chosen to ignore and shun so complacently just as Europe, having benefited from the advanced sciences and arts of the Arabs, went on to create its Renaissance and Enlightenment, which in turn led to the industrial revolution and modernity with all their marvels and upheavals.
Now, like Tennyson’s Ulysses and indeed like other plucky but receptive explorers of landscapes, mindscapes, and soulscapes, Ali Omar Ermes has become part of all that [he has] met be it in his studies, travels, or imagination. His entrenchment in the Arab-Islamic tradition of calligraphy and design, where, as in Byzantine art, the marriage ceremony of heaven and earth is perpetually enacted, is obvious. But, no cage-dweller, he carries the past moulds to bold encounters with new unprecedented patterns, genres, combinations and colour schemes, which could have come about or reached their fullness only in the cross-fertilisation of his adopted home in the West. The Oxford historian and celebrated humanist and sage Theodore Zeldin, in his remarkable book An Intimate History of Humanity (1994), cites the case of El Greco, who, at the age of 36, decided to move to Toledo, still reverberating with excitement since Christians, Muslims and Jews had once lived in it side by side, [and] one of its kings had been proud to call himself Emperor of the Three Religions and another to have his epitaph inscribed on his tombstone in Castilian, Arabic and Hebrew. It was this move, Zeldin, cogently argues, which launched El Greco on his groundbreaking career, one that could have dwindled to that of a mediocre portrait painter had he not been so comprehensively challenged by the animation and toleration of that city’s legacy.
President John Kennedy had spoken about the need for society to set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him if art is to fulfil its all-important role in nourish[ing] the roots of our culture. Somehow, it matters little whether Kennedy or Eliot (in the previous reference from Tradition and the Individual Talent) was alluding exclusively or primarily to Western culture. Albert Einstein, who habitually went beyond the expectations of his scientific peers as brilliantly and provocatively as beyond the precincts of his physicist’s function to play a variety of seemingly incompatible but equally inspiring, mind-liberating, and humanizing roles, set no such priorities or distinctions. Rather, he stated that a human being was part of a whole, with his separateness being a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness and his devotion to a narrow group of kith and kin being a kind of prison. The task of humanity, he affirmed, must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” a statement that is an unconscious echo of, and in a mystical affinity with, expressions and attitudes by such Sufis as the thirteenth-century Ibn al-Arabi of Seville and Damascus who declared, in R.A. Nicholson’s translation,
My heart is capable of every form:
A cloister for the monk, a fane for idols,
A pasture for gazelles, the votary s Ka’ba,
The tables of the Torah, the Koran,
Love is the faith I hold; wherever turn
His camels, still the one true faith is mine.
A sentiment that also had intellectual roots in the rich cultural ferment and pluralism of tenth-century Baghdad, which had offered, among other things, a vision of what seemed at the time a perfect human and cultural, synthesis, expressed h ere by Ikwan al-Safa, and admiringly quoted by Zeldin:
The ideal and perfect person should be of East Persian origin, Arab in faith, of Babylonian education, Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, as pious as a Syrian monk, a Greek in individual sciences, an Indian in the interpretation of all mysteries, but lastly and especially a Sufi in his whole spiritual life!
Once again, Ali Omar Ermes is at the heart of this deathless tradition. With all the obvious commitment to, and incessant acknowledgement of, their artist’s Arab roots, the galaxy of his calligraphic abstract paintings also seem to vibrate at times with the energies, brainwaves, brush-strokes, and colours, of such stars as Braque, Gris, Monet, Ernst, Kadinsky, and Miró, together with those of the master illuminists and miniaturists of Persia, India, Japan, and China. And yet, he is so different from everyone else, with a genre that is completely his own, though he shares with the above luminaries the ability to create hitherto-unseen and unforeseen connections and possibilities, not only in art but also in life since, with the liberation of our vision and imagination, the latter faculty deemed by Einstein as more important than knowledge, we can go beyond Apollinaire’s dichotomy of the conceived and the perceived, to perhaps effect a dialogue and harmony between the two (or multiple) realities.
A true diplomat and a bridge-builder is the artist a mediator, synthesiser, liberator, and, above all, a peacemaker. Our postmodernist world promises to offer almost everyone with intelligence and resource untold and unprecedented opportunities. But it is also an age of inequalities and conflicts, depravation and desperation. The eminent Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel has already underlined the fact that Auschwitz was not built with walls but with words; and though art should know better than to lend its wings to any political system, bound to exploit it in a golden or brazen cage, it may still have to be conscious of the need to embrace certain causes, like those of peace and human welfare and dignity along with the cause of our collective nest and canvas, Planet Earth.
Kaf - The Power of Expression by Ali Omar Ermes
Ermes’s epic painting ‘Narrative Stream’ (1993) pays homage to the continuity (and inevitable interdependence) of all traditions, though, as he invariably does, being a poet himself and admirer of fine poetry, choosing to exemplify this through interwoven quotes from Arabic poems ranging in the time of their composition from the pre-Islamic to the contemporary periods. In his caption he further explains the theme by stating: The ‘narrative stream’ refers to the practice of passing ideas and traditions down the line, with the abstract imagery of the artwork being complemented by the poetic extracts. The stream itself, which carries these barges or arks or winged seeds of poetry, is composed of a galaxy of shapes and colours that merge into one another yet stand out individually unique and mysterious within the general flow. Other liquid paintings like ‘Visual Sounds in Arabic Script’ (1991), ‘Pattern of Colours’ (1991), ‘Al Qaf’ (1979), ‘Al Ain in Motion’ (1972) and ‘A Composition of Letters, Signs and Emphases’ (1991) suggest, through no figurative representation, schools of fish and water creatures (be they exotic ones in a tropical river or whales on the high seas) swimming or glittering or frolicking to their hearts’ content in the surrounding medium. Their dynamism and promise, perhaps also their danger, are inexhaustible as are the artist’s own. Elsewhere, in ‘A Blue Tribute’ (1992), the Arabic Tah letter is standing up like a minaret, slender and evocative, but as taut, imperious and perilous as a king cobra in a temple dedicated to its adoration.
At a personal level, Ermes is a man of great serenity and composure; yet a highly charged subversive strain seems to run through much of his work. In part he seems to be drawing on the spirit and attitude of the pre-Islamic Arab sa’aliq poets, who lived beyond their tribes’ pale and loudly and proudly sang their individualism and freedom even while expressing in astonishing metaphors their kinship with the rest of humanity and creation. Ermes, distinctly aware of that tradition which had filtered through to later periods of Arabic literature (and politics), embeds and interlaces his restless abstractions with excerpts from male and female representatives of that tradition, poets like Tarafah, Sukaina, al-Mutanabbi and al-Mar’arri, as he highlights such issues of concern to modern Arab masses (and intellectuals) as political freedom and freedom of expression, social justice, dignity, mutual consultation, and participation of women in public life.
In the process, Ermes takes his calligraphy through and beyond the classical Islamic tradition of Qur’anic and religious inscriptions. Though the art of manuscript and miniature illustrations in Persia, Turkey, and Mogul India has also drawn on the profane texts, particularly those of love and epic poetry, while elegant, even artistic, penmanship was the norm in diplomatic correspondences and some scientific, medical and other compositions, in addition to dedicatory enamelled or inlaid decorations on glass, pottery, and copper, Ermes, in using mainly secular inscriptions, harks back to the pre-Islamic tradition of revering or paying homage to eloquence the beauty, power, and mystery of human speech at its best. It was that tradition, which, we are told, placed the famous Golden Odes (for which Ermes himself has dedicated a series of seven astounding paintings) on the walls of the Ka’bah as pinnacles of poetic expression. But even here an affinity with the supernatural was present, both in the identification with the Ka’bah and in the pre-Islamic Arab belief that the Jinn (the desert Muses) had a role to play in poetic inspiration. Moreover, despite its existentialist, hedonistic and dissident features, which were however counterbalanced by an engagement with such ideals and practices as chivalry, courage, generosity, fellowship, and harmony with nature, which are of central concern to Ermes himself, the poetry of pagan Arabia remained a model of excellence for later Muslim Arabs, influencing poetic traditions throughout the Arab-Islamic Empire, even forging intriguing links with other literary traditions beyond it. Poetry itself survived, and indeed was officially acknowledged, as the register and chronicle (diwan) par excellence of the Arab psyche, and has remained so for more than a thousand and four hundred years. It may be significant that Paul Albar of ninth-century Cordoba, fearing the effect of what some people today might call a ‘cultural invasion’ wrote (in R. Dozy’s  and R.W. Southern’s  translation):
The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their language. For every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves.
Moreover, the proximity in time between the full flowering of the poetry of pagan Arabia and the advent of Islam in the seventh century, with the Qur’an offering a new higher expression of spirituality and a spur to civilisation-building on a scale unknown in the earlier tradition, further helped reinforce rather th an dislodge the secular precedence. Both traditions were destined to go hand in hand in shaping and building up the Arab spirit, though assisting in creating or documenting recurrent tensions and contradictions within that spirit.
Ermes has recently stated: “As an Arab and a Muslim, I feel (and rightly so) that I’m a world citizen, after all, this is the Islamic approach to society and mankind. Since I started my first steps in my art, I meant it to be enjoyed and understood by all people, to break the barriers of communication between people and languages. That’s why I have combined more than one language to my art [as in, e.g., ‘AAAA’ and ‘Silah’ of 1992 and 1993]. Arabic is an ideal visual form, and the musical entity in its movement of the letterform as in poetry not only in its literary expression but also in its silent music expressions, combines the use of space, colour and the power of shifting places in their quiet and noisy effects.”
Those shifts and noises, like the tensions and contradictions hinted at above are also refreshingly present in the art of Ermes. His few direct echoes of the Qur’an, as in the partly charred but striking ‘Iqra’ (Read!) of 1991, have a peculiar restiveness and edginess in them as they seem to shout at a semi-comatose nation to wake up to the expanding frontiers of the universe it had long chosen to close its eyes to. Even the contour of the Arabic name of the deity, Allah, when it occurs in his paintings, is never the same, ever-changing and transforming, perhaps in tandem with that enigmatic verse in Surat al-Najm (the Star) which describes the Godhead, whom we presume to be far removed from the world of mutability and flux, as a force ever-interlocked with the affairs of a perpetually altering and evolving cosmos. The paradoxical nature of life is more generally expressed in his painting ‘Contradictions of Joy’ (1993), now housed in the Smithsonian museum in Washington. In ‘The Sixth Ode’ (1993), the flaming crimson letters seem to drip with blood, perhaps conveying, in addition to the epic and strife-ridden interludes in Antara’s poem, the violence and the blood-letting so tragically synonymous with the life on earth of a species about the wisdom of whose creation the angels in a Qur’anic story boldly question the Creator. Be that as it may, the stripes on the central bloodstained letters also evoke a hint of the beauty and terror of a tiger, tempting us to wonder, with the angels as with the persona in William Blake’s poem,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?
In ‘Akh!’ or ‘Aahhh!’ (1993), a diptych dedicated to the United Nations, the sense of anguish expressed by the groaning sound of the word, itself cradling in tiny script a moving poem by the artist/poet, seems to accentuate, beyond its immediate historical context and collective concern, the artist s own agony as he labours to transmute pain into creativity and senselessness into meaning. Nonetheless, as the double-framed picture moves sideways and the funereal black of the aleph, with its roots fanning out into some heart’s core, assumes more density and pointedness, its maddah (sign over the aleph) seems to release a fat drop of black blood and its roots break free, while the kh on the left takes on darker smudges as it comes into contact with the open spaces. Here the cry of anguish is itself transformed beyond an individual’s sense of distress to a wider, universal articulation of grief and desperation, perhaps in parallel with Munch’s ‘The Scream’, that very emblem and herald of our modern anxiety, alienation, and despondency.
The Positive La by Ali Omar ErmesWhether painting a starkly bare tableau like ‘Al Ba in Purple’ (1986) or an extremely elaborate and complex one like ‘Crossfire’ (1993), Ermes infuses a palpable sense of movement and interaction in his works. Aside from the dynamic multiplicity of forms and shapes, backgrounds and foregrounds, the traffics and dances of the letterforms themselves are often dazzling. Many of them have about them the quality of a sensuous, exuberant (yet strangely controlled) abandon in the way they stretch and curl, submerge and rise, scintillate and dim, melt and diffuse, intertwine and interweave, and ever so rarely sit still. Longing for freedom and release, they nonetheless link hands and souls with the troupes of colours and shades quivering and surging around them or, in some cases, lie back brooding and seemingly inert. Like whirling dervishes, with one hand looking up to heaven and the other facing down to the earth, where all the ladders start, they perhaps convey something of their author’s creative restlessness, in his confessedly constant search and ceaseless movement to broaden the means of [his] artistic expression and stretch the frontiers of [his] art. In the process, the letters and shapes metamorphose as if by alchemy or plain physics, poetically and trenchantly explained by Rumi in the famous ‘Elements’ poem. An end however, as Rumi elsewhere elucidates, in Annemarie Schimmel’s translation, is always a beginning:
What can I do when Love appears and puts its claw round my neck?
I grasp it, take it to my breast and drag it into the whirling!
And when the bosom of the motes is filled with the glow of the sun,
They enter all the dance, the dance and do not complain in the whirling!
Such transformations and transports could not have been accomplished in the paintings at hand without Ermes’s own love for God, for his fellow human beings, for the beauty and potential of the world, and for COLOUR! The extraordinary and ceaselessly surprising combinations of his colour schemes are simply staggering: his purples and golds, yellows and blacks, blues and oranges, greens and azure-blues, browns and violets, and so on and so forth an inexhaustible supply of inventions and juxtapositions, at times as bright as Chagall’s ‘Les Amoureaux aux Marguerites’ and, at other, perhaps rarer, times, as sombre and bleak as Kossoff’s ‘Kilburn Underground Station’.
The Qur’an describes the human being as a khalifah, a guardian or custodian of God’s world. The artist, being an outstanding and finely tuned guardian/gardener, has far more than the ordinary man’s or ordinary woman’s share of responsibility for the preservation and enhancement of that world. A mixed blessing as this might be for artists, they have no option but to persist with their sullen art to use Dylan Thomas’s phraseology or bittersweet fascination with what is difficult to use W. B. Yeats’s own. And, though, like the ardent, bewildered, mystics of all faiths or the painted seeking lover in Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, they, in their ever-panting pursuit, cannot fade. Teasing us out of thought like eternity, they will remain on the cold canvas, paper or marble, for ever warm and still to be enjoyed. In a perpetual state of loving and longing they shall endure, with the object of their quest ever remaining fair and unreachable.
Keats’s exhortation to the panting lover on the urn, yet, do not grieve, may re-invoke to us Ermes’s own ‘Do not Despair’, addressed, in 1993, to the suffering people of Bosnia and all sufferers of genocide, prejudice, persecution, injustice, ignorance, and indifference, ancient and modern. Ermes, himself, fusing so magically and inimitably poetry and painting on his breathless paper, may be included in W.H. Auden’s 1939 magnificent tribute to the work of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and his final stirring exhortation to all poets/artists:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still, persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man [and the free woman] how to praise