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The evolution of Arabic calligraphy
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 12 - 08 - 2012

Roberta Fedele
Saudi Gazette
JEDDAH — Lebanese art curator and gallerist Saleh Barakat recently took Jeddah's art lovers on a virtual trip of discovery through the history of calligraphy in modern and contemporary Arab art. Illustrating Arab artists' different ways of using words and letters – from a total adherence to strict canonic laws and meaningful content to the extreme free form and the totally abstracted sign – Barakat instilled a sense of appreciation in his audience for the art.
Organized by Athr Gallery, which is currently hosting two exhibitions also dedicated to a broad spectrum of calligraphic art from traditionalist works to unconventional contemporary styles, Barakat's lecture, Pictorial Delights Beyond Words, pays homage to an art that transcends words' descriptive and rational function to transform them into vehicles of emotions.
Barakat begun his illustrated presentation on the calligraphic movement in Middle Eastern art explaining the importance that “the art of the written word” had in the Arab world since the nomadic age and how Arabic calligraphy came to be exalted as a sacred art in the Islamic era and considered a unifying element of Islamic art. “Since the pre-Islamic period, poetry and words represented the Arabs' principal register of their collective memory that attained a divine status with the advent of Islam. Over 14 centuries, the art of Islam revolved mainly around calligraphy that was sewed on textiles, carved on wood, forged on metal, chiseled on stone and used to decorate objects of daily use,” he said.
Through the centuries, the term calligrapher tended to be applied only to those artists who worked within strict boundaries of established schools and styles respecting precise geometries and expressing a devotional content. Barakat's lecture tried to explore to what extent this definition has changed and can still fit contemporary calligraphy.
For this reason, he focused his intervention on the evolution of the Hurufiyya school, an artistic movement established in the 1940s that adapted traditional calligraphic styles to modern aesthetic. Arab artists of the 1940s and 1950s started incorporating words and letters into their modern art pieces, finding in calligraphy, an ideal iconographic device in which sound, word, meaning and forms were united and capable of providing an identity to their modern abstract paintings.
“After the independence of many Arab states between, most Arab artists recurred to calligraphy as a solution to reclaim an identity. Calligraphy was their privileged choice of expression, being a medium that infiltrated every domain of their lives and played a central role in their collective unconscious,” said Barakat.
Arab artists who contributed to the establishment of the Hurifiyya movement are Lebanese artist Moustafa Farroukh who used to paint still lives and landscapes illustrating Qur'anic verses, Iraqi artist Madiha Omar who drafted, in 1949, the first manifest on the influence of Arabic calligraphy on her abstract art and Iraqi artist Jamil Hamoudi who produced calligraphy-related art since 1945.
Barakat also explained how this new school of art, breaking the boundaries of traditional calligraphy, went side by side with the definition of four main trends: The abstract, unattached to any narrative; the mathematical, immersed in geometry with no space for improvisation; the calligraphic, using words and texts as central focus and ultimate objective; and the free style, conferring to the Arabic script a pure ornamental role.
Barakat illustrated the evolution of these trends in a 72-year period (1940 – 2012) by displaying the works of artists from African, Gulf and Middle Eastern countries who were capable of looking into the future, freeing themselves from canons.
Among these works, particularly interesting are the paintings of Saudi artist Nasser Al Salem and Tunisian visual artist Nja Mahdaoui whose collections are currently displayed at Athr Gallery and well synthesize the desire of many Arab artists to explore new means of expression and unconventional ways of producing calligraphy design. Al Salem, for instance, uses contemporary media not based on mere inscription to manufacture his artworks while Mahdaoui uses the words' aesthetic and plastic potential, freeing them from their meaning.
Barakat also displayed the works of Japanese Artist Kouichi Honda and Chinese Artist Haji Noor Deen Mi Guanjiang to illustrate the wide boundaries of the Hurufiyya movement that is not confined to a single country or geographical region but encompasses the entire Islamic world.
Hesitant to classify calligraphy within a traditional motif, Barakat concluded his lecture by inviting his audience to reflect on the suffocating impact that pre-established rules may have on accomplished Arab artists who go on repeating beautiful albeit dated patterns instead of freeing their creativity.
“In my humble opinion, the golden age of calligraphy has not started yet and will only be reached when this art will be liberated from its many political, cultural and religious reclaims to become a humanistic art for all, totally self sufficient to its own aesthetics and beauty,” he concluded.

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