Thursday, 19 May 2016

Arabic Calligraphy Exhibition

Living in Saudi Arabia, and not being in a city, I have very limited access to art galleries. Recently I saw an exhibition of Arabic calligraphy advertised and thought this would be an interesting opportunity to see some traditional artwork. However, unfortunately it was not hand written calligraphy like I hoped, it was created digitally.

This was titled La Liah Ella Allah, it was not completely clear, I think it means 'There is no Deity Except God'

This was not titled

This was titled 'Names of Allah'

This was titled 'No Refuge Except to Allah'

There was no artist details.

The calligraphy itself is  a reproduction of a handmade process, layered over a digital background. The backgrounds are ethereal in their textures and colours, supporting the sentiment of the words. The lines of the text are active, image 1 contains strong diagonal lines sweeping round to sharp points at the top, this is in strong contrast to the background soft textures, giving the words more impact.

Christian art more often relies on symbolism and imagery to convey its message, which are not allowed in Islam. However, I can see clear connections with this painting and the calligraphy above:

This painting is also ethereal in its background textures, with shimmering light glimmering through hazy cloud-like textures of soft colours. It also uses strong lines in the composition, giving emphasis to the symbolic images of Mary and the Holy Trinity, which are arranged in a bold triangle shape. 

Baroque art, such as the Velázquez painting, reflected 17th century religious tensions;  the Catholic 

Church's desire to reassert itself in the wake of the Protestant Reformation (, 2016), thus this artwork had a politically charged message despite not having any words to express this message.
The difference to me is that I think an image gives you freedom to make your own opinion, despite the fact that the Christian symbolism may be pretty well drilled into those of us who have grown up in Christian countries, including on deep subconscious levels, so that interpretation of the image may not be as free as we like to think. Words can be more definitive and specific, instructions are

given in words and symbols in all cultures. 

After viewing these I did some research into other artist's that use text in their work.

A contemporary artist who uses  calligraphy with a very different effect is Shirin Neshat in her series 

'The calligraphy is Persian poetry about themes such as exile, identity, femininity, and martyrdom...The words that are written on the women's skin demonstrate the literal and symbolic voice of women whose sexuality and individualism have been obliterated in public by the veil.'

The script itself - Being in Arabic it has cultural connotations and, especially to many Western viewers, is connected to Islam.
The content of the words - exile, identity, femininity and martyrdom, all politically charged subjects
Placement - By placing it on parts of the body which are normally covered in Iran it is connected to the veil.
All of these are of course interrelated reinforcing the bold political statement of the work. I am interested in what the impact of these works would be if patterns of lines and shapes were used instead of words to represent the veil. If they were instead lines, bold straight or curved like the script the effect would have some similarities, in mimicking the veil, bold lines making a statement about the veil in one form, delicate lines making a different statement. If those patterns of lines were connected to a culture such as Islamic tessellations what would the impact be then? How significant is the content of the words to the impact of the work?  The words themselves are small making neat lines, difficult to read unless seen up close, they are a symbol as much as their content is significant. In comparison, the decorative calligraphy from the exhibition is more elegant and ornate, representing grace, the meaning of the words is clear. 

Taking this back to printmaking I found a contemporary Australian artist who uses text in linocut, Angela Cavalieri 

Photo taken from Sydney Morning Herald

She created a linocut of words swirling in the air between the mouths that spoke them:

She has also taken the music and lyrics of Monteverdi and created visual representations using the words:

'As I had been using ‘text as image’ in my artwork, I found an affinity with the idea of ‘word painting’ in music, that I discovered while researching Monteverdi. As well as looking at the original poetry that was used to create the madrigal, I also looked at musical scores and listened to recordings. From this I visualised how the scene or sound would look. This was my response to how I imagined the madrigal could be created visually rather than aurally.' ("Ulysses Is Back: And This Time He's Got Pictures")

Being a music teacher I am familiar with Monteverdi madrigals, they are secular rennaissance vocal works, often complex pieces of many independent parts. 

Word painting is creating sounds that mirror the words, a common example is descending passages on the word 'descending'.

In the artwork Ragionando above the text is Italian, as is Cavalieri. She does not live in Italy but proudly explores her Italian heritage through this artwork. The language does not have the same initial impact to a Western viewer as the Persian or Arabic script as it is not instantly recognisable, being a Roman alphabet. Closer investigation reveals the origin of the words. I am interested in the shapes she has chosen to represent the madrigal, I would have interpreted it as being a much more complex structure with more variation in the lines. There is overlapping and twisting of lines, but the four rows of text moving together to me suggests that the music would do the same, which is very much not the case in a Monteverdi Madrigal, unison or homophonic sections are only a small part of the texture, more often the parts move independently in polyphonic movement. The pieces are often through-composed, the circle form to me suggests something that moves around and returns to its origins, a madrigal does not do this. So I wonder if she has taken this interpretation from the meaning of the words. Which brings me back to the artworks examined above by Neshat and the Arabic calligraphy; does using text diminish purely visual (or in this case musical) concepts? By using words does the more subtle symbolism of visual language get drowned out?

References (2016). Baroque Art: Definition, Styles, History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 31 May 2016].

"Teachartwiki - Shirin Neshat, Women Of Allah Series". N.p., 2016. Web. 31 May 2016.

"Ulysses Is Back: And This Time He's Got Pictures". N.p., 2016. Web. 31 May 2016.

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