The written word may be today’s communication tool, but art and image were the first language and, in the words of artist Paul Klee, “writing and painting are essentially similar”.
Beirut: Archaeological findings on cave walls prove that painting was man’s first written language; his drawings of animals and other shapes reflecting his daily life and challenges before he could write.
Over time and with the support of painting, spoken languages have evolved their alphabets to symbolize these sounds and man has moved from images to words. While Arabic did not develop from this historical process, its alphabets added a new dimension to writing via calligraphy. Through Arabic, calligraphy alphabets become both writing and painting tools.
Enhancing this dimension was the holy Quran when Muslims attempted to script beautifully to honor its holiness. Likewise, Arabic calligraphy is widely shared across Islam-Arabic as the nations share a language and the beauty of the script can be enjoyed by anyone who reads or writes Arabic.
George Edward Manasseh, a Lebanese artist living in Tunisia, says Arabic calligraphy displays the elements considered art and reflects the roots of Arab identity and culture. Arab painting dates from the Abassi period (founded in 750 AD) and had its own school at the Baghdad school of painting.
Yahya Al Wasiti’s 13th century paintings belong to what is today classified as “the art of clarification”.
As an art form, Arabic calligraphy has developed two writing styles, namely Kufi, named after the city of Kufa, and Naskhi. The former evolved as the preferred epigraphic style and has various forms, including the intricate ornate or braided kufic seen primarily on tombstones, buildings, and utilities.
Square Kufic is used for decorative purposes, while Ibn Muqlah (died 940) standardized the shapes of nskhi or naskh letters and the style was later developed by other calligraphers including Ibn al Bawwab and Yaqut Al Mustasimi .
“What distinguishes Arabic calligraphy from other linguistic calligraphy is that it has special qualities such as renewal in the forms of the letters and dependence at the same time. This is what has made Arabic calligraphy the one of the most distinguished fine arts in general,” says Manasseh.
Arabic calligraphy as a new technique blurred the lines between calligraphy and painting and moved Arabic alphabets from simple writing tools to forms of drawing. Consequently, he entered the world of modern fine art and abstraction where comments by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) as “the impact of the acute angle of a triangle on the circle produces an effect no less powerful than the finger of God touching the finger of Adam in Michelangelo” have merit.
Arabic calligraphy entered a new level of beauty when calligraphers mastered the art of combining geometric rigor with the most melodious rhythm of letters.
By following this technique, modern Tunisian calligrapher Nja Mahdaoui says he is not trying to write anything meaningful, but using Arabic letters in isolated and combined forms “to make a beautiful work of art”.
A modern trend gives Arabic calligraphy the name hurufiyya to differentiate it from other art forms. The name refers to works of art that use the Arabic language – letters and texts – as a visual element or compositional material. Based on these elements, Manasseh says that “Arabic calligraphy has all the elements to be part of the fine arts”.
Moufied Zaytouneh, a retired professor at the Lebanese University, Faculty of Fine Arts, underlined the major role that the spiritual element plays in Arabic calligraphy “where the letter captures the vibrations of the soul of the calligrapher to form its form and reflect the beauty of his art”.
Reinforcing its place in the modern arts, Arabic calligraphy is considered the art of composition. The Danish painter Asger Jorn (1914-1973) said: “There is writing in every image and an image in every writing”.
Manasseh says Arabic calligraphy has another element that makes it one of the greatest fine arts in that it reflects the history of a nation because “Arabic calligraphy is a story…that goes hand in hand with the beauty of modern times and its innovations”.
This high level of beauty and modern technique has made Arabic calligraphy an international art, highly regarded among other fine arts, and has attracted renowned artists to use Arabic calligraphy in their works. French painter Bernard Quentin (1923-2020) used Arabic letters architecturally in some of his great works.
Arabic calligraphy has continued to develop and spread to international markets and is now considered “a competitor to many art markets” while occupying the top spot in the Arab world.
“It is a powerful competitor whether regional or international, because it enters into all fields from fashion to textiles, including architecture, interior decoration and embellishment… When you combine all the elements, we note its role in the art markets where the Islamic-Arab nation exists. and most people enjoy calligraphy because it represents a part of their culture and beliefs,” Manasseh says.
Zaytouneh says the market for Arabic calligraphy is huge, especially since the Islamic-Arab nation represents around 1.8 billion people, or 24% of the world’s population.
“Most of them have calligraphic paint at home. Some take it as a painting to reflect their belief and bless their homes; others take it, if not the Quran surah, as a decorative painting, and if it wasn’t too abstract, because it shows some wisdom or idiom they want to follow,” he says.
The variety of Arabic calligraphy reflects different styles where some calligraphers follow abstractionist schools; others are realistic and even more impressionistic. These styles have their fingerprints in different schools of art like Ibrahim El Salahi (b. 1930) from Sudan; Sadequain Naqqash (1930-1987) from Pakistan and Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004) from Iraq where the artists created a new aesthetic language of Arabic calligraphic figuration and abstraction.
Occupying this high-ranking position in regional and international markets has opened the doors for Arabic calligraphy to have its place in famous and specialized exhibitions. Madiha Umar (1908-2005) pioneered abstract Arabic calligraphy from 1945 and is considered the first Arab artist to study the relationship between Arabic calligraphy and Western abstract works.
In 1949 she held one of the first exhibitions of modern Arabic calligraphy artwork at the Georgetown Public Library and today there are semi-permanent exhibits of this art form at the International Center Research Center on Islamic Culture and Art (IRCICA) in Istanbul and internationally specialized. exhibition in Dubai.
The growth of the market has also attracted the attention of modern technology with computer programs designed to reproduce Arabic calligraphy and factories producing commercial products ranging from cheap and poor quality to expensive and high quality products. Consumers can also buy Arabic calligraphy products online.
The handwriting style is mostly used for official and unofficial announcements such as handouts, page designs, wedding invitations, holy holiday celebration cards, and social media greetings. It has also entered the realm of public art where it invades city walls in the form of graffiti – either as an expression of youth or as a beautification of the city.
“Anyone who can read Arabic appreciates Arabic calligraphy and wishes to own one. Anyone who appreciates art appreciates Arabic calligraphy,” says Zaytouneh.
The elegance, beauty, culture, and history of the script also set it apart from commercial markets. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has added Arabic calligraphy to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, describing it as “the artistic practice of handwriting in Arabic in a fluid way to convey harmony, grace and beauty”.
It is an art with its own style to compose the elements of a nation and its evolution through history in an artistic painting.
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