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Letter, Word, Art

Letter, Word, Art

Written by Lee Adair Lawrence

Venture into almost any bank, airport, or corporate headquarters in the Gulf; wander through an art gallery in Bombay, Karachi or Beirut and you'll see them: Renditions of Arabic letters in sometimes gigantic, sometimes three-dimensional, and always unconventional formats. Art that featured Arabic script used to be confined to illustrated manuscripts, mosques and monuments. Today, Arabic appears in an unprecedented range of artworks.

Across-section of such art, from the collection of the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, is on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 18, following a successful three-month exhibition at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. It includes Osman Waqialla's strong, stylized letters in a wash of reds and ochres (1); Husain's fluid hand, which transforms "Huwwallah" ("He is God") into the outline of a boat upon the sea (12); busy, illegible swarms of words in works by Yussef Ahmad (8) and Mehdi Qotb; a single letter crafted by Ali Omar Ermes with one sure stroke of his thick brush (2) ; the interlocking Kufic script in Amin Gulgee's sculptures (19); and the illusion of depth Ahmed Moustafa creates solely with calligraphy (15).
Directly or indirectly, these artists, and numerous others from countries as far apart as Algeria and Pakistan, draw on Arabic letters and texts for their art, tapping their shape, meaning, and potent cultural resonance. This common element prompts Princess Wijdan Ali of Jordan to affirm the existence of a "calligraphic school" of modern Arab art—al-madrasah al-khattiyyah fi al-fann—that has emerged over the past 50 years. Paradoxically, the fact that Arabic writing has been linked with art for centuries poses the greatest challenge to her idea, while also highlighting its most valuable contribution.

"On the whole, any work that has calligraphy [in it] is a calligraphic work," Wijdan says, adding that she uses the words "calligraphy" and "writing" interchangeably. This definition throws open the school's doors to any artist who has ever incorporated as much as a letter in his or her work, whether he is a master calligrapher drawing letters with a meticulously sharpened qalam or a computer aficionado designing letter-forms on her screen.

Wijdan also maintains that the calligraphic school is not confined to a single country or geographical region, but reaches across the Islamic world, and is identifiable in terms of a shared philosophical stance. "The Calligraphic School," as she sees it, "consists of all works where artists have used calligraphy in their work for the purposes of identity."

The claim is thought-provoking, and the credentials with which Wijdan backs them are impressive: She is herself an artist for whom "calligraphy has been a liberating element"; she holds a doctorate in Islamic art history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; and she is the founder and president of Jordan's National Gallery of Fine Arts, whose collection, devoted exclusively to contemporary Islamic works, she drew upon for the "Right to Write" exhibition— which she also curated. A book detailing her research into modern calligraphic art is scheduled for publication next year.

As she defines it, the calligraphic school began in 1947 when the Iraqi artist Madiha Umar held an exhibition in Washington, D.C. and displayed letters that swirled and curled, white shapes etched from the black surface of the scratch-board. (See Aramco World, January/February 1994.) According to Salwa Nashashibi, president and founder of the International Council for Women in the Arts, "that was when the actual letter was liberated from the word."

In Umar's wake, the movement spread, emerging in Morocco, Sudan, Iran and Iraq, Wijdan explains. For the most part, the works were independent experiments, but their numbers grew and reached their peak in the 1980's.

Different artists pursued different avenues, and Wijdan posits as many as four branches of the school. The paintings of Ahmed Moustafa and Osman Waqialla exemplify what she terms "pure" calligraphic works—a branch that includes her own work—in which the meaning of letters and words plays as important a role as the form. "Pure" calligraphic works are distinct from the abstract works of artists like Shakir Hassan Al Said, who abstracts the letter and the word from its original context and meaning. Under the heading of "figurative calligraphy," Wijdan includes human, animal and other recognizable shapes that Hassan Massoudy, Ameena Ahuja (11) and Husain form with writing.

Wijdan seems to vacillate on whether or not to include a fourth category of works in the school. These are what she terms "calligraphic combinations," which range from mixed-media pieces by Palestinian Laila Shawa, in which Arabic script appears in the background, to paintings by Nirmala Shanmughalingam in which the Malaysian artist superimposes text on the image.

Working in familiar Western media and formats, these calligraphic artists create works that can be appreciated by the same criteria we apply to European and American works. However, these works are at the same time distinguishably non-Western: They point to a culture in which the word, poetry, writing and geometric, abstract letterforms have historically occupied a central place.

According to Wijdan, this distinctly non-Western element is tied to the issue of identity, and conversations with Arab artists confirm that identity has indeed many aspects worth exploring. "Asserting one's identity," as Shawa, a Palestinian artist living in London, asserts, "is an act of survival."

When artists from the Islamic world first appeared on the international art scene in the early post-colonial years, they arrived with their heads full of Western masterpieces and Western avant-garde concerns. After all, they had been trained as Western artists, whether they studied in Cairo or London, Tunis or Paris, Tehran or Rome. But unlike their European and American peers, many felt marginalized. No matter what they did, they ran the risk of being dismissed as mere foreign imitators.

As newly independent countries struggled to define themselves, so did their artists cast about for a visual vocabulary that would reflect their cultural identity—an identity that, for good or ill, included the legacy of colonialism. For many, turning to Arabic script proved to be the answer. "Using calligraphy in contemporary modes," Wijdan explains, "tells people 'This is how we are trained, but we're not cut off from our heritage, and our heritage did not stop with the demise of the Ottoman Empire.'"

The Lebanese poet and painter Etel Adnan (16) was among the first to paint the word. "When I started [in the 1960's]," she says, "I felt I was pioneering." And indeed she was, by consciously tapping the Islamic tradition of linking poetry and imagery. Adnan created what she calls "visual readings of poems" in which modern painting and poetry joined forces on the page. In the process, she recalls, "it dawned on me that any writing is drawing."

Meanwhile Waqialla, who, unlike Adnan, had trained as a calligrapher, had been experimenting with the letter since returning in 1951 to his native Khartoum in Sudan. As a result of his studies in England, he looked at his tradition afresh and liberated calligraphy from the formal rules that govern its traditional styles. Others followed Waqialla's lead, prompting critics to speak of a "Khartoum school," composed of artists who drew inspiration from indigenous Sudanese art forms.

The desire for a culturally identifiable art also stirred artists elsewhere, among them Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (14)(18), an Iranian artist who has lived in France since 1961. "Ever since I completed the École des Beaux Arts of Tehran in 1957," he says, "I wanted to take advantage of the richness of Eastern art and mix it with Western art to produce a synthesis in works that would be avant-garde." This mission drew him to the water wells and fountains of Iran's towns and villages—the saqqa khanneh; he immersed himself in folk art, including decorated vessels and tools. The designs, the writing and the images he found gave rise to a style that critics in France dubbed the "saqqa khanneh movement."

It is difficult to tell whether artists across the Islamic world directly influenced each other, or whether their common search was simply an outgrowth of the spirit of the times or, as Zenderoudi calls it, "la soif du siecle."

The experience of Ali Omar Ermes seems to confirm that it was the latter. "Muslims and Arabs consider themselves international people," he says. "They learn from others, and they teach others. So there is no real resistance to what is going on [around them]. But they also want to see their own culture demonstrated in their own daily life." Ermes, living in England, found that meant that he had to look hard at himself and his work: "Is this really something I can embrace as my own thing, or am I just translating something and following the herd?"

Eventually he rejected Western representative painting on the grounds that it was merely "repeating what had already been created beautifully by God." By the same token, he also rejected geometrical designs—"you cannot just go on drawing squares or circles," he laughs.. He put away his brushes and concentrated on writing poetry and reading literature, "waiting for an idea to come."

It did. He realized that "one of the main things that can distinguish Arab and Islamic culture is writing." Not formally trained as a calligrapher, Ermes nevertheless chose to focus on the letter and its mystical connotations. "It became a symbol of Arab and Islamic culture" expressed in the essentially Western medium of three-dimensional images painted on canvas.

As the years went by, however, the link between written language and identity subtly changed. If writing had once served primarily as a mark of cultural authenticity for Adnan, it began to take on a more personal purpose. "I am more drawn to Arabic script," says the artist, who has lived in California for the past 30 years, "because it is the only domain in which I function as an Arab."

Later generations can be said to have generally bypassed that first stage. From 1969 to 1975, Iraqi-born Hassan Massoudy studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, years that he recalls spending "in conflict, unhappy and sad." A chance encounter after graduation involved him in a multimedia project wherein his role was to write calligraphy that was projected onto a screen. This drew him back to his roots, which included extensive training in classical calligraphy. He rediscovered the tools he had packed away, and the movements his hand had not practiced for years. "Here I felt that something deep inside me was getting out, and there was suddenly a great urgency to express myself," he recalls. "I felt such a happiness."

Like other Islamic artists, he responded to the letter in ways he had never responded to the human figure, the center of all Western art teaching. Calligraphy, words and letters became the means to self-knowledge. They also provided the tools with which he could express himself in what he hopes is "a truly universal language of geometry, rhythm, proportion, space, light, color."

Nashashibi notes that the same quest for identity has led increasing numbers of artists to collaborate with poets, reviving and expanding a longstanding Islamic tradition. A prime example is the Algerian-born Rachid Koraichi (10) , who speaks in terms of "running the film backwards, returning to the moment when emotion triggered a text" composed by a poet friend.

Working closely with poets such as Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, he does not illustrate the text, but rather adds his own expression to another's words. The resulting synergy creates works in which drawings intermingle with words sometimes composed of Arabic letters, sometimes of invented symbols. For Koraichi, the purpose is to leave behind "traces and markings" that, while emanating from an individual shaped by a particular culture and tradition, in the end belong to humanity as a whole.

Curiously enough, legibility is seldom an issue. Koraichi invents signs and uses mirror-writing; Adnan sometimes scatters the words of a poem around the page, making it impossible for the viewer to stitch it back together. Shawa, in her "Walls of Gaza" series, sometimes blows up photographs of graffiti until the words are unrecognizable. But they all nevertheless evoke the Arabic word or letter, and thus have a particular resonance with an Islamic audience. "We are looking at the aesthetics," Nashashibi explains. "And we have a good feeling that the words, by virtue of being words, are blessings."

The popularity of works centered on calligraphy and script points to another level at which Arabic writing relates to the question of identity. Massoudy attributes the following he has among young emigres to their need for "a cultural identity, some tie to their roots—one that does not harken to the past but rather looks at the future." In the experience of London gallery owner and dealer Dale Egee, the same holds true for many in the modern Arab world who find that contemporary works which contain references to Arabic writing speak to the various facets of themselves. Such works suit the tastes of Armani-clad businessmen and Levis-wearing young people, yet they also resonate in ways that no purely Western painting can.

As a result, calligraphy and Arabic script have in the last four decades leapt from mosques, monuments and the pages of manuscripts to land on framed canvases, in metal sculptures, and in the very weave of tapestries, displaying an array of colors and shapes that would have the master calligraphers of old clutching their hearts.

Or would they? Perhaps those masters would instead smile in admiration, for as far-out and experimental as they might first appear, many contemporary works carry forward a centuries-old tradition of experimentation and abstraction.

In that case, we have to ask whether it is meaningful to use the presence of calligraphy and writing as the defining criterion of a school of art. Salah Hassan, assistant professor of African art at Cornell University and the author of numerous works on contemporary African art, insists that calligraphy is not a school, "but just one possible way for artists to relate to their heritage." This is exactly what happened in the saqqa khanneh movement, where, according to Zenderoudi, calligraphy dominated for a time, then gave way to other concerns.

Even Adnan, for whom writing has always been central, wonders whether any talk of schools should not focus on "the different ways of using words and letters rather than on the fact of using them."

For Wijdan, however, the issue is clear. "We can speak of a Calligraphic School because it is defined in time: It began, gained momentum and ebbed." She notes that, after a flurry of calligraphic works in the 1960's and 1970's, their number gradually diminished as many artists no longer dealt exclusively with letters and script, while their younger colleagues chose international modes of expression such as video art and installations that included no reference to Arabic. But whether calligraphy or writing appears as an artist's primary concern or not, it is, according to Wijdan, "a means to identify the modern Islamic artist."

No doubt her contention will raise questions and generate vigorous debate. Whether or not her definition becomes part of accepted art history, her thesis highlights a vibrant—and often overlooked—branch of contemporary art. And it focuses attention on the complex and crucial role that writing and language continue to play in the personal and cultural identity of people from the Islamic world.

A freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., Lee Lawrence frequently writes about non-Western art and culture for publications in the us and abroad.

This article appeared on pages 32-43 of the March/April 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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