Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Five Images of Contemporary Islamic Calligraphy
That Transcend the Boundaries of the Eye
by Aaron Vlek

(click all images to enlarge)

Few native English speakers can comprehend the possibilities, the depth of meaning and subtle implications inherent in the concept of the living sacred text, language, and alphabet such as that of Qur’anic Arabic. We write and read, even our most elegant treatises and love letters, often with a sterile and utilitarian efficiency that prefigures and starkly illustrates the highly prized transitory and disposable quality of our culture, our ideas, and perhaps even our very aspirations.
Drawing from the works of five contemporary examples of Islamic calligraphy, I will provide a brief examination of the traditional Qur’anic, personal and sigilistic, and even one piece which appears seemingly wholly abstract. Yet, as radically distinct from one another as these individual works appear at first to be, as divergent from the ritual formality of what is typically considered Islamic calligraphy, all share three important features. The images are constructed, crafted, drawn, and evoked from the body of the written Arabic script. Each work possesses a bold and imposing visual composition that challenges viewers to abandon their habitual default modes of looking and seeing as they are compelled to confront and contemplate that which is being presented in each image.
And most importantly, each image seductively illuminates the mystery of the Arabic script as it both veils and reveals the secrets it wishes to share with us. In each of these works here under discussion, the artist has employed the Arabic script as a master composer might create a complex and intricate symphony. Where the English and Western languages seem to lay flat upon the page, divesting themselves quickly of their contents and then waiting silently, as if to say, that is all and nothing more, the Arabic calligraphy is never static, never quiet, always tempting us with this, and again perhaps, with so much more.

Image #1

Al-Waqfa (2006)
Al-Arif – The man of Knowledge
Nazar Yahya (b. Iraq, 1963-)
Handmade book, 10 digital prints with collage

Yahya has crafted a handmade book featuring ten digital prints and a bound cover. As contemporary as this piece may be, with its slick, high-tech execution , it recalls the elegance of a near monastic care and meticulousness in what is clearly a cursive style of personal Arabic penmanship and not a formal and traditionally Qur’anic calligraphic style at all. The color palate is quite reminiscent of both Zen and Shinto painting styles with the bold and dramatic hand against the royal glow of a warm and sunny background. As with Shinto and Zen works, the prominent solar sphere commands the viewer’s gaze and forces the eye to penetrate through the distracting veil of the thickly and carefully rendered sacred and mystic text.
In Yahya’s piece, al-Arif, the Man of Knowledge, the text derives from al-Niffari, a 9th century mystic from the artist’s native Iraq known for his passionate evocations of God. The viewer is invited to transcend the material reality in which he is seemingly forever entrenched, through the protecting veil of the written and visible exoteric text, itself perhaps looming like the Sphinx before the gates of the gnosis, ready to turn away the unworthy, or the unprepared. Niffari states in the text upon the page,, “Whenever the vision is broadened, the words become narrowed." Are Yahya and al-Niffari suggesting, or hinting, that regardless of how beautiful the calligraphic script may be, it is but the outer husk of the meanings and Reality hidden behind the veil of the text? And perhaps even this, the hidden meaning itself which the trained eye, the scholastic theologian, or the mystic may comprehend, is merely another veil of many yet to part as we transcend the limitations of the senses, the reasoning mind, and all knowledge which we may smugly call our “own” and come finally to encounter that which destroys forever the clamor of the mind.

Image #2

Iman Abdullah Mahmud
(b. Iraq, 1956-)

Ritual Signs II is a clear and typical example of the ancient form of table or tablet of corresponding mystic symbols, elements, and images. Almost a cookbook or roadmap for attempting to decipher the inner nature of deepest reality, and navigating the intricate connective relationships between all things in creation, this type of formula was developed and used extensively in the ancient world among the Hebrews, Egyptians, Chaldeans and many others and has survived into modern usage in forms little changed in either style or content.
Some examples of this form which thrive today are the anagrams and other common amusement puzzles found everywhere in popular culture from Barnes & Noble to the back pages of The New York Times. As with the tarot cards and their mundane cousins the playing card deck which lacks the major arcane or trumps, these modern puzzles and anagrams offer seemingly only amusement and distraction.
The intriguing feature of Mahmud’s table of sigils, is that it truly appears to be a “working magician’s” drawing board. It’s old and worn, tattered and frayed at the edges and clearly shows evidence of fevered erasings and mad scribbling, one can almost imagine by candlelight at the midnight hour. The bold and almost violent strokes across the surface of the work seem disturbingly new, perhaps the ink still damp, giving evidence of a final and triumphant AHA! Moment as these dramatic dark symbols almost leap from the page to preeminently wipe out all that has gone before, or has lead up to, this final secret and private revelation.
Even a light comparison between this work and other similar examples from cultures as disparate as the Hebrew, the Caribbean, and of the 16th, 19th, and 20th century European, as well as those of neo-occultists of the John Dee, Austin Osman Spare, and Aleister Crowley schools of thought, will reveal an uncanny similarity. One cannot easily dismiss the haunting universality of man’s attempt to categorize, symbolize, and then manipulate his observations and theories of the non-spatial and spiritual realms with the same hunger and precision, and with a similar methodology, as do the empirical scientists who scoff at them.

Image #3

SALOME (1993)
Rachid Koraïchi
(b. Algeria, 1947-)
Gold and indigo hand-woven silk

Koraïchi’s Salome evokes similar ritual styles from diverse cultural sources as does Mahmud in the previous image. Disdaining the canvas, the high-tech digital program, and the calligrapher’s nib and parchment, Koraïchi traces his arcane and indecipherable formulae on azure silk with gold lettering and symbols. These three mediums tell us a great deal. Silk is very costly and exquisite, azure is the color of heaven and indeed even “the gods,” and gold is the most precious of material elements. Although Koraïchi is an artist from the “Islamic” world, his stretched and twisted calligraphic renderings resemble the Japanese kanji figures far more than the Arabic script from which they are derived. The figures at the top of the work bear a remarkable resemblance to the classical hieroglyphic depictions of the gods seated within the Barq of Re as it makes its journey across the heavens twice daily, at dawn and at sunset. Dawn and sunset are two of the Muslim times of prayer as well. Also similarly to the Mahmud piece, Koraïchi utilizes the table schema in the central portion of the work with the left portion of the panel resembling the rayed chart of the Zodiac, and the entire central portion similar in style to typical ancient Egyptian stelea or formulaic devotional tablets. Together these provocatively suggestive images create a delightful mélange of surprisingly cohesive cross cultural references.
At the very outset, we know that Koraïchi’s configurations are of the utmost import. However, the artist forever locks us out of these formulae by creating a completely private and interior secret script, which he then flaunts defiantly and gloriously before our eyes. We may glean certain hintings from the composition and the execution materials, but we will never know with certainty what Koraïchi has discovered by merely sitting passively in our chairs and gazing upon his travel notes. The artist seems to be suggesting that we must go forth and embark upon our own explorations, carve unique inroads towards the unknown, and devise our own private and interior languages with which to communicate our discoveries to ourselves and to the world. And perhaps Koraïchi is again like the Sphinx, retaining his silence as a final sacred oath.
Comparing other examples of similar models such as Tibetan prayer flags, ancient and contemporary, as well as Buddhist Thanka sacred paintings on cloth, we find silk and gold used frequently to convey the sacredness of the inner teachings and to beautifully decorate outward texts for the less initiated eye. Modern day “occultists” from the 19th and 20th centuries and well into the present have often endeavored to create secret working languages decipherable only to their creators to express and symbolize the expanse of the inner drawing board.

Image #4

The Attributes of Divine Perfection (1987)
Ahmed Moustafa
(b. Egypt, 1943)
Oil and watercolor on paper

This work is perhaps the most intriguing of this grouping under discussion. Moustafa’s central image depicts a cube highly reminiscent of the Ka’aba at Mecca to which Muslims turn in prayer five times a day. Yet the clever and almost playfully reverent use of the Islamic imagery extends provocatively to every element of the work’s composition. The dark blue background of the piece is subtly worked with the Throne Verse (Ayat al-Kursi 2:255) of the Qur’an. This backdrop is textured ambiguously to suggest the lovely appearance of a vast hanging curtain or veil, its folds almost visible and rippling, again reminiscent of the fabulously text-embroidered curtain that shrouds the exterior of the Ka’aba.
Furthering this idea of the deepening layers, inside the blue veil is the Ka’aba itself, but the walls of this Ka’aba are protected with yet another layer, this time with the second half of the shahada, or declaration of faith, that Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah. Once inside these protecting veils, the interior of the cube is opened, or revealed, to display the 99 Beautiful Names, or Attributes of Allah modeled intricately and suggestively into a pattern evoking the molecular structure of everything in the material creation from gross matter and crystalline structures to that of the highest of animal life, Mankind himself. These Attributes of Allah, the artist seems to declare, aggregate in countless wondrous combinations to form the basis of all existence, and display the mystery of seemingly diverse multiplicity of creation through differing mixtures of these subtle essences of Allah’s nature.
The remaining element of the work, the foreground which leads from the image of the cube outwards right off the canvas towards the viewer like a royal road, is worked with yet another Qur’anic passage admonishing, inviting, calling upon man to call in return upon God by any of these beautiful names. The result, we are promised, is that this road will open before us and guide us through the veils to the final personal revelation of the Mystery. This lovely image bridges the seeming gap between the heights of modern empirical knowledge and the often quoted ancient and sacred tenet of faith: Wheresoever ye shall look, there is the Face of God.

Image #5

Shirazeh Houshiary
(b. Iran, 1955-)
Black and white aquacyl, white pencil
and ink on canvas
This final piece almost needs no words. Similar images emerge frequently in many times and cultures. Always, it seems a meditation upon the descent of the soul as it turns away from the external realities and closes in upon its own concealed center. As Houshiary explains this work, this piece is created from a single word that is written over and over and over again upon the surface of the canvas, and then erased, written again and erased, smudged, and then written over and erased again producing an almost impossible to believe texture and symmetry. It recalls Moustafa’s Divine Attributes as this single word becomes the distilled substance of the entire work, but which loses any continuity with an actual written word of human origin and script. Again, this harkens back to Nazar Yahya’s work Al-Arif, which points beyond the veils to where the word ceases to have meaning as the rational mind is taken from itself.
Houshiary removes veils by removing the rational meaning of the word without diminishing the purity of its essence. She declares, and rightly so, that this method transcends culture and speaks deeply to us all at a level that ravages the conditioned meanings we all live by. If one gazes into the center of this piece, there is very much something there to be seen. Is it the intent of the artist? A hallucination on the part of the viewer? Or is there something there that each of us might discover by focusing intently on the center of A Fine Frenzy as it works like an Escher maze upon the brain and plays its tricks upon the supremely malleable human consciousness? Houshiary states openly that it is her hope, through this work, to allow the viewer to set aside the rational consciousness, to rend this veil that separates the viewer, all of us, from the Real that we all share at the core of our own inner fine frenzy.

What these five works all share in common, what they all tantalizingly suggest and challenge us to explore and discover for ourselves, is that there is indeed a great and beautiful mystery, a commanding and defining Truth to all of this great Thisness that surrounds and fills us. But that it is, as we are so often maddeningly reminded, hidden in plain sight, and that we must be transformed into creatures that can apprehend, see, taste, encounter, and Be with that Mystery. But that to undertake this great adventure, we must courageously chart virgin territory, the inner core of our own unique beings, and set aside those veils so that we may abandon ourselves to something so much more. Each of these five works both veils, and reveals that Mystery.


Julio Rivas said...

Hello, Zanuyay!

The images are most impressive...

As you may recall from some of my comments on Tahir's blog, I'm engaged in a very old, ongoing struggle with nafs-i-ammara --you seem to have experience in this matter, and I was wondering whether you might be willing to share some of it with me. To be quite specific, on ways to outwit it in everyday life, before it's too late (I often realize it got the upper hand once again after it did :(
I wish I could realize it before!

With deep thanks and all my very best wishes,

PS Just in case, my e-mail address:


Julio Rivas said...

Image 4 (The Attributes of Divine Perfection) is simply beyond words to praise --out of this world, if I may say so