Arabic calligraphy

Saudi-led campaign puts Arabic calligraphy on UNESCO heritage list

Arabic calligraphy, Congolese rumba and the pottery tradition of the Awajún people of northern Peru have all been added to Unesco’s prestigious list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

A total of 39 items have made it onto the list, announced this week following a meeting of the heritage body’s intergovernmental committee. The list reflects “the various cultural practices and expressions of humanity, and aims to raise awareness of the importance of these practices and expressions”, explains Unesco.

The Arabic calligraphy proposal was championed by a coalition of 16 Arabic-speaking countries, including Egypt and Palestine. The campaign was led by Saudi Arabia, which continues to promote its cultural credentials as part of the government’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy and create a more “open” image of the country.

The Saudi government has declared 2020 and 2021 the “Year of Arabic Calligraphy”, encompassing an exhibition at the National Museum in Riyadh that examined the relationship between calligraphy, contemporary design and artificial intelligence. Unesco highlights this “artistic practice of handwriting in Arabic in a fluid way to convey harmony, grace and beauty”, adding that calligraphy skills are transmitted informally or through formal schools and apprenticeships.

In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Culture said:[Arabic calligraphy] remains extremely popular and is used by artists and designers in a wide range of media, including in paintings, sculptures and graffiti, or “calligraffiti”. Visitors to the Kingdom can witness the earliest forms of the Arabic language in ancient inscriptions at sites such as the Unesco World Heritage Sites AlUla and Himā Najrān.

Meanwhile, the millennial practice of Awajún pottery has empowered Awajún women, who tend and sow the plants they use to make and decorate their pots, says Unesco, adding: “The pots are decorated with geometric patterns inspired by elements of nature such as plants, animals, mountains and stars. They are used for cooking, drinking, eating and serving food, as well as for rituals and ceremonies. The Congolese dance rumba, which derives from an ancient dance called nkumba, is also on the UNESCO list.

New elements have also been added to other UNESCO intangible culture lists. A national program that helped safeguard the art of calligraphy in Iran has been included in the register of good safeguarding practices. “The safeguarding of the Iranian calligraphic tradition became a major concern in the 1980s, and a national program was drawn up for this purpose by non-governmental organizations in collaboration with the government”, explains Unesco.

Meanwhile, there are four new inscriptions on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, which highlight seriously endangered traditions. These include the ancient practice of weaving the Tais, a textile produced in Timor-Leste, Southeast Asia, which is used to welcome newborn babies as well as for traditional ceremonies and festivals. This practice is threatened by several factors, including the preference for modern clothing among younger generations and the replacement of local handmade materials with industrial alternatives, according to Unesco. UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage lists now include 630 items from 140 countries.