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.

Monday, April 28, 2008


The tired mantra “History repeats itself” is of course absurd. History is not a cognizant being that can “repeat itself” or even possess an “itself.” What this hackneyed trope reflects however is a limited observation of what could arguably be called a fact. Historical events are invariably necessitated by an aggregation of factors culminating in an unavoidable outcome. Clouds form with a peculiar density of elements and the appropriate temperature and rain, or snow, falls. Minerals within the earth undergo a necessary pressure of stress and weight and angle, and they melt, cool, and form other distinct yet predictable elements. Herbivore animals, in the presence of drought and famine either die or begin to mutate into predators and omnivores.
The empirical observations of the world are remarkably sublime, elegant, and predictable where even mutations and discrete teratomas within a body, a larger system or an entire society may only develop and evolve from available local elements. What humankind, with the exception of a few schools of scientific philosophy refuse to consider, is that we too behave in exquisitely narrow ranges of possibility given the aggregation of conditions, ideation, resources, and biological determinants of our species. Of course until the European “Enlightenment” the role of history was aesthetic. Since then history has still been an art and not a science but the discipline has tried to cut and paste certain pieces of rhetoric onto it to give it a cheap veneer of an empiric science. But it is a useful tool, if approached from enough angles to get as clear a bead on the matter as possible. Just as the nefarious “Marco Polo” was completely discredited when he failed to appear in the Chinese Imperial court journals, journals known for meticulous recording of minutia, particularly as relating to foreign visitors. There are mention of various missionaries by full name and even the names of their servants. No mention of any “Marco.”
History is a funny thing. At the same time the Pope was issuing a description of Attila as having horns and a tail, Priscus, the Byzantine court “historian,” scribe, and the only person to write a description of the man based on first hand meetings within him, and whose accounts are still extant today, describes a passionate chess player of modest skills, awkwardly attempting to fit into a court ill-suited to his rustic and politically inexperienced ways, but who won everyone over with his voracious appetite to learn of anything new and different to his experience. Which account will the individual reader find compelling and convincing? Attila with horns or the “axis of Evil,” history is not repeating itself but social, economic impetus to growth; similar factors create similar results regardless of time and place. Progress is a myth, part of the sparkle and glow of the campfire of our ancestors that we tend against the encroaching darkness, but the darkness never left town. We build bigger and better tools, but we can still slide with just as much abandon and predictability back into the chaos of intellectual barbarism and fetishistic localization. The “angry villagers with torches” syndrome. Now the angry unlettered villagers with torches are inhabiting major US cities. Did Marcus Tullius Cicero penning reams of elegant sarcastic prose and social commentary on what Roman society matrons were wearing at parties that season from exile on his country estate suspect that in a few of hundred years the powerful social class he occupied would be all but wiped out and exiled en masse to a few raged estates while new and voracious classes of “outsiders” elbowed their way onto the stage and took their turn at the mike?
History does not repeat itself, but historians generally cite the demise of the Roman Empire as predicated upon these key factors, themselves all inevitable outcomes of their own trajectories of momentum.
1) Too large an expanse of geography to be controlled by too few who operated as autonomous overlords with no responsibility to the localities ruled and their people’s. Rape and pillage and send the fruits back home.
2) The Roman military, once an aristocratic class, needed to enlarge beyond that class and increasingly employed mercenaries loyal only to a single general and not the state who were motivated by personal gain only. Prior to this period returning veterans were given land to start new farms and families. This practice was abandoned and soldiers were increasingly consigned to perpetual military careers, thus investing nothing in the state.
3) Massive losses in war debt caused a collapse in the military’s ability to pay soldiers in the field and provide food and supplies creating a desperate scavenger mentality among an increasingly chaotic and uncontrollable army.
4) Open infighting and competition among Roman military factions and generals.
5) Undertaking of increasing campaigns of conquest without the manpower or resources to complete them and for reasons solely to bolster a dying economy on the Italian peninsula. Seasoned war-hardened men with no prospects come home to destabilize the peace of a civic society back home. Dead soldiers don’t come home to feed their families and tend their farms to create food and other goods and millions flood into the cities consigned to crime of all kinds. Millions of farms abandoned and turn to waste. Bread and Circuses. Rise of prostitution, increase in illegitimate poor. Collapse of economy. Rise of violent combative games and blood sport for diverting rising dissatisfaction among increasingly uncontrollable growing classes of destitute and illiterate.
6) Wealthy classes begin abandoning cities and isolating themselves in elite enclaves outside the cities.

History does not repeat itself, but the same chemicals mixed in the same precise quantities, temperature, and order of mixing, will invariably create the same result. History does not repeat itself, but the Six Points listed above without exception describe the conditions of the US military today. Can Man or the individual man or woman consciously “write history” or create it? With rare exceptions, no. The British seem perhaps to have diverted the Socialist revolution that Marx predicted for England by ushering in modest reforms in its, by our standards, monstrous labor practices. Five year olds were no longer allowed to work sixteen hours a day in the mines to the point where their bodies were warped in strange configurations that shortened their lives and limited their work capacity. But in many among the extreme poor, this loss of a working member of the family created worse financial hardships, often driving women, vast numbers of women, into prostitution, thus increasing the proliferation of disease, and the unemployable sick.
Women were allowed to bring infants to work. But they were not allowed to cry and scream, so they were placed in baskets beneath the sewing machines, perhaps a hundred in a room, their small faces wrapped in rags soaked in laudanum to silence their cries. Who did these children grow up to be and what was their impact upon British society? In the US child labor laws are extensive. Yet many Americans grow and remain perpetual children all their lives, never learning how to create a means of sustenance for themselves beyond the subsistence.
Where is all of this rant and screed going? Simply this, in CORPSE: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint the Time of Death, Jessica, Snyder Sachs describes the vastly elegant and complex multilayered society found within the folds and gases of the rotting human corpse. This society is wholly interdependent, its strata and their functions are empirically observable, and minutely discernable along a trajectory of time into past, to the moment of death, and the point of ultimate decay. This whole process hinges upon one of several species of blowflies and the larvae it produces. There are many other occupants and citizens necessary to this banquet. They all show up at a very specific and necessary time within the process, their arrival is necessitated by other necessary events immediately preceding their arrival, and their presence and function makes possible and necessitates other arrivals and other successive events in this process. All of these conditions lead to predictable and observable, quantifiable conclusions in the decay process. No variations, no discrete artistic mutations, no anomalies occurring outside the aggregation of components and their interactions.
All of this is a sublimely functional mechanism of the world processing itself and all the elements within itself. It’s also really quite beautiful once you get past the initial conditioned response to such things. But what Sachs and other researchers have discovered that is perhaps most interesting in all of this, is that the components and elements of initial decay and the breakdown of healthy organisms are already always present within life. If a person is shot and killed, the gases and chemicals of decay and dissolution are already at work before he hits the ground, while they had not yet begun the moment before. There is much, much for us to learn from this. Not to change, but to be the witnesses of it. All things in the observable universe, including the individual human being, the race, the culture, the species, the old stars in the heavens that explode on camera to delight the eyes of scientists, all things manifest a cycle of coming into existence, maturation, period of progeneration, of sterility, of decadence and decay, (the real definition of the word decadence) and the white hot last flush of existence, and extinguishment. It’s remarkably simple.
Why does the old Sufi not come down off his mountain and pick up a shovel and a pack of seeds, or a Kalashnikov, or a stack of handbills and a bullhorn? Is it because he has grown too tired, or jaded? Is it because he feels powerless to effect the grim realities of a beleaguered world? Is it because he has run out of ideas? Is it because he IS old and the exciting new undreamed of world is even now gathering its forces on the horizon and it’s beyond his capacity to even “get it”? No. It is because the darkness of his Solitude has shown him Its Truth. That maybe God, whatever He really is, created all of this just to explore His own unlimited possibilities, and He is, as they say, just playing with Himself. Those that know this, seem always to find a very great and exquisite joy in this. Once they get over the sadness.