BEIRUT: “Midad: The Public and Intimate Lives of Arabic Calligraphy,” the latest exhibition at Dar El-Nimer for Arts & Culture, is one of a kind. An exploration of the diversity and beauty of Arabic calligraphy, the show presents 75 artworks dating from the eighth to the 20th centuries. With the inclusion of five new commissions from Lebanese contemporary artists, the exhibition offers an art historical narrative and contemporizes the Arabic language.
Lama Koubrously, head of collections at Dar El-Nimer, explained that founder and collector Rami El-Nimer wanted to show works from this series out of a concern for the language. “He does believe that the Arabic language is really being lost, especially with people among our generation,” Koubrously said.
“He wanted to show that the Arabic language is not just related to Islam and Islamic art.
“With everything that’s been going on in the world presently, and with the complete distortion of the notion of Islam, he wanted to show that Arabic calligraphy is a beautiful thing and it wasn’t just used on Islamic manuscripts. We must not forget that Arabic is a beautiful language and it should not be lost. In Lebanon, no one speaks Arabic anymore. They speak English or French. This exhibition represents a revival of the Arabic language through arts.
“We even have the use of Arabic calligraphy in countries that are outside of the Arab world such as China, India and Africa,” she continued. “The star of our exhibition is the ‘Slave Quran’ by Ayuba Sleiman Diallo, which has such an amazing story.”
“Midad” shows the historical narrative of Arabic calligraphy on the first-floor exhibition hall, while the contemporary commissions are hung on the second.
The show is viewer-friendly and informative. It starts by explaining the origins and development of Arabic scripts from Kufic, Maghribi, Muhaqqaq, Nasta’liq and other styles. Each script is accompanied by a visual example with “Folio from Early Quran,” from the mid-eighth to ninth century Abbasid Empire, in Kufic style, and “Five Suras from the Quran,” from 1482 Iran or Iraq in Nashk and Muhaqqaq scripts.
A video by Rami Hibri documents calligraphers Hani Hammoud, and Moukhtar el-Baba drawing in Arabic scripts. Along with a display of calligraphic tools and materials such as the Ottoman “calligraphy panel,” dated 1900-1901, this selection provides concrete insight into the artistic process and introduces viewers to the upcoming themes of the exhibition.
These themes – such as “Private Devotion, The Body and The Talisman,” “Performance, Piety, Poetry,” and “Calligraphy in Print and Mass Production” – represent the importance of calligraphy and Islamic art across several materials, disciplines, cultures and religions. An Ottoman “Head of Wall Fountain,” 1767-1768, integrates the inscription “For the well-being of those who drink” in Jali ta’liq script with intricate flower motifs and seashells.
The carved white marble conveys the usage of Arabic calligraphy in urban architecture. It also highlights the role of Ottoman patronage as many public services were erected by members of prominent families.
The 17th-18th-century Ottoman textile “Fragment of a Tomb Cover” reinforces the appearance of calligraphy in the public sphere. This brocaded red-and-gold silk has Arabic verses in Thuluth and Muhaqqaq style, giving homage to God and the departed, and Ottoman lantern patterns.
Islamic and Levantine art is rooted in ideas of beauty, perfection and mathematical completeness. Through various epochs, art of the Muslim world has combined the Arabic language with geometrical patterns and motifs to create symbolic wholes. “Midad” showcases this important aspect with an “Album Sheet with Calligraphy exercise” by prominent master Imad al-Hasani from Safavid Isfahan, Iran. Mingling ink, watercolor and gold leaf on paper, the piece sets 16th- to 17th-century calligraphy within 17th- to 18th-century boarders.
The use of Nasta’liq script reflects the visual importance of the text. The album sheet’s monochromatic background suggests Isfahani tastes at the time. Reminiscent of the Timurid-era work, the patterned vegetation and flower motifs reveal the long-standing tradition of lush depictions, reminiscent of the promise of paradise.
Works like this suggest the rich nuances and history of Islamic art and Arabic calligraphy.
“Midad” includes cultural production from the Sufi and Christian traditions, which reflect the extent of Arabic calligraphy’s influence on different sects in the region.
Attributed to the 19th to 20th century Ottoman Empire, “Sufi Tall Hat” is a white wool hat with black embroidery of Nasta’liq script and geometric patterns. “Printed Christian Devotional Book” from Lebanon’s Choueir, circa 1769, is a Catholic prayer book of Arabic calligraphy on white laid paper.
The contemporary commissions on the second floor include Roy Samaha’s “A Book from Six Directions,” a video that follows the rituals of unfolding the book, its illustrations, scripts, and geometric forms. The piece suggests a fresh take on Arabic calligraphy and explores the rich diversity of the genre.
The reason for commissioning these contemporary works, Koubrously said, was “to get five Lebanese artists to study the collection and to come up with ... how they see calligraphy within their works.
“They are unique works,” she continued. “Jana Traboulsi did extensive research on the manuscripts, which are exhibited on the first floor. She was engaging with the margin and marginal practices in manuscripts. Mounira al-Solh uses embroidery and calligraphy. Marwan Rechmaoui uses the idea of djinns and spirits. It’s amazing and works on another level creating a different dimension.
“The exhibition is a good way to try and build the bridge between what’s authentic and what’s getting this new wave of young artists. They are showing that calligraphy can be used in contemporary art ... Regarding this idea of beauty, everything is relative. I personally think that the use of calligraphy in the contemporary art scene remains beautiful and very much linked to this notion of beauty in preceding historical Arabic calligraphy.”
Raed Yassin’s “Mao” series is composed of Quranic suras embroidered upon portraits of Mao Zedong, the founder of contemporary China. Yassin’s work reflects the oppression of Muslims under the Maoist state while gesturing to the beauty of calligraphy while creating an interesting rupture with the classical works downstairs.
Religious portraits and depictions are banned by the Quran. Perhaps, by mixing Quranic scripts with Mao’s portraits, Yassin breaks away from tradition to portray the imposing presence of Mao and the state he founded. “Midad” brings forth an amalgamation of old and new, possibly a new definition of the beauty of contemporary Arabic calligraphy.
“Midad: The Public and Intimate Lives of Arabic Calligraphy” is up at Dar El-Nimer through Oct 21. For more, visit http://www.darelnimer.org/en/.