Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti is a beautifully produced coffee table book which provides the reader with the opportunity to review an exhibition of the work of fifty artists – who have used Arabic or Persian script in their art – while remaining in their own living room.
Looking at the magnificent colour photographs is like being in an art gallery. Every artist is introduced, with samples of his or her work following.
The artworks, in a variety of media, are interspersed with artists’ statements, essays by experts, poems and relevant literature, putting the innovative use of words in art into personal and historical contexts.
Three generations of artists are featured in the book: the first are the post-independence generation of the 1950s, the second includes the generation of artists who studied in the West and sometimes settled in the West, while the third generation – the nomads – include those who move from one country to another developing their art, such as the Palestinian artist Emily Jacir who divides her time between Ramallah, Palestine and Rome.
Each of the artists was asked three questions: How did writing/calligraphy/ words come into your work, or how did you come to words, writing or the morphology of letters in your work? Is there anything you may want to add in terms of your sources of inspiration, whether poetry, historical events or aesthetics?
Some artists like Iranian born Siah Armajani answer briefly: “Art was not a discovery on my part. I just did it. I must insist upon this in writing. I am not interested in calligraphy in any shape or form. In school, I always received the lowest grades in calligraphy. What I use is simple, ordinary, everyday script. My sources of inspiration are social order, art, community, politics and the hopes and aspirations of the forgotten and the disadvantaged.”
Others like Ahmed Moustafa, reply in more detail, giving a penetrating flash of insight into their art and philosophy: “It is generally assumed, when people see my work, that I practise the art of Arabic calligraphy. The truth is that what is deposited within my works could not be further from such an assumption. This misapprehension arises on account of the lack of general understanding relating to the true meaning of Arabic script. My artistic journey began with the study and practice of western styles of drawing and figurative art, the foundations of western art philosophy, history schools and figureheads. I graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Alexandria University with distinction and was awarded the National Education Prize for creative art form by the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. I did not at this time possess any innovative knowledge about Arabic script forms whatsoever. Paradoxically I began to learn about them in London in 1974, when pursuing a doctorate in printmaking techniques.
“I had been on the verge of returning to Egypt, but then happened to come across an article by the late renowned scholar Nabia Abbott, titled “The contribution of Ibn Muqla to North Arabic script.”
My encounter with this article may have been predestined; and I devoted myself to discovering the secrets of proportioned script, the theory of which had been established by Muqla more than a thousand years earlier. My realization that Arabic script forms are the ‘visualization of sound in space’ led to my disassociation from western painting in favour of mastering the comprehensive abstract vocabulary of these forms.”
Rose Issa the editor of Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti told The Middle East that calligraphy accounts for one third of contemporary Arab art today. “There is video art, installation, good photography, bad photography and figurative work. “
She emphasised that the book is not about calligraphy. Only three of the artists are calligraphers. “The usage of the Arabic script is the main common language of the artists. Some of them use English and French. They use words. They use the morphology of the letter or because they want to express themselves in their own language or they think their language is beautiful or sacred or the morphology of it can transmit another visual culture.”
SIGNS OF OUR TIMES
FROM CALLIGRAPHY TO CALLIGRAFFITI
Edited by Rose Issa
Foreword by Hans Ulrich Obrist
With Contributions by Juloet Cestar and Venetia Porter
Published by Merrell Publishers, London
Hardback with jacket | 320 pages | 300 colour illustrations | RRP: £ 40