The Writing on the Wall: From Ancient Arabic Script to Gaza City Graffiti, a Fascinating Exhibition Shows That the Written Word Is a Cornerstone of Middle Eastern Identity, Finds Rachel Aspden

By Aspden, Rachel | New Statesman (1996), May 22, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Writing on the Wall: From Ancient Arabic Script to Gaza City Graffiti, a Fascinating Exhibition Shows That the Written Word Is a Cornerstone of Middle Eastern Identity, Finds Rachel Aspden


Aspden, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)


To most westerners, Arabic script is familiar only from media images: as a threatening, cryptic tangle on the bandannas of suicide bombers, on banners carried through the streets of Gaza or Basra, or in the rolling captions on al-Jazeera news clips. Yet the history of the written Arabic word is, in reality, a volatile 1,500-year-old blend of religion, magic, politics and art. Today, artists working with Arabic are just as likely to use InDesign or a spray can as the calligrapher's pen of 24 neatly cut donkey hairs, but they draw on the same complex tradition. "Word Into Art", based on the British Museum's rarely seen contemporary Middle Eastern collection, traces the way in which artists interact with this legacy.

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"It's an immense story to tell," says Venetia Porter, curator of the exhibition, as she leads me into a gallery half-hung with calligraphy. "But we've tried to begin at the beginning." As "Word Into Art" emphasises, written Arabic originated as a sacred vehicle for religion. According to the Koran, the Archangel Jibreel delivered the first revelation to Muhammad with the command to recite: "In the name of thy Lord ... who by the pen taught man what he did not know." When the reluctant (and illiterate) Prophet eventually complied, generations of scribes and calligraphers devised increasingly elaborate scripts in which to copy his words. Constrained by the Islamic taboo on representation, they created a sophisticated art of the word governed by precise rules.

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Drawing on this tradition, contemporary artists can instantly invoke a shared Muslim identity through language, stretching back a millennium and a half. This is often a political gesture. Mustapha Kemal Ataturk decreed that Turkish should be written in Roman, not Arabic, script in 1928. Seen in this light, the Japanese calligrapher Fou'ad Kouichi Honda's use of Ottoman mirror writing in his Untitled (2004) is a conscious appeal to Turkey's religious past. But calligraphy can also be used as a less loaded statement of historical continuity. The stark, geometric black lines of Nassar Mansour's Kun (2002)--the title and image are the single word for "be"--derive recognisably from the angular Kufic letters developed by 7th-century scribes in early Islamic Iraq.

The simplicity of Mansour's composition is deceptive. Calligraphers of Arabic still undergo years of master-to-student training. Their endless hours with pen and practice sheets resurface in the work as a fascination with rhythm and repetition, as in Ahmed Moustafa's incantatory, dizzying Attributes of Divine Perfection (1987), a cube split into facets marked with the "Beautiful Names of Allah". Floating before a backdrop of repeated Koranic verses, the image appears computer-generated in its mathematical severity. It is difficult to look at--perhaps even ugly--but hints at the persistent belief in the Arabic word as a carrier of power: the very mathematical proportions of the letters are supposed to express eternal truths and possess magical qualities.

In the Middle East, calligraphy, Koranic verses and Islamic phrases are everywhere, not just in mosques and palaces but in living-rooms, on cafe walls and on the bumpers of long-distance buses. One of the most fascinating aspects of "Word Into Art" is the interplay between aesthetic refinement and folk tradition: high art and the street corner are in constant conversation. This is not restricted to religious works. Even calligraphic representations of Arabic literary classics are, Porter insists, part of everyday life. "The extent of literacy in the Middle East has been vastly underestimated," she says. "People learn qasidas, pre-Islamic odes, in school. They're part of their everyday lives." The Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri says: "Iranians will utter a poem casually without knowing who it's from."

Resisting the weight of the calligraphic tradition, many modern Middle Eastern artists have retreated to deliberately naive techniques. …

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