Where is Arabic Calligraphy in Contemporary Art?

Graffiti & Street Art, Art History

May 22, 2016

Regardless of the graphic form it took, in ancient times writing was considered a dominant symbol of supernatural power and divinity. In the Islamic tradition, the development of point to the line, of light to movement and of the Aleph (the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) to the rest of the letters, symbolizes the story of creation itself. The importance of the Arabic calligraphy, not only used for the writing of the sacred texts, but also as a point from which many artists take their inspiration from, is seen to influence many urban and street art, graphic and design work, and is visible as a reference in many of the contemporary artworks today. The abstraction and the ornamentation, alongside the traditional function of the representation and symbolic characteristic of the mysticism, are just some of the reasons why this form of writing is so appealing to many. Its evolution from the original role as a tool for communication to becoming an element of the art production, is seen to originate from the prohibition of figurative representation in Islam, intended as a means of banning the worship of idols and pagan gods, therefore making this form of writing an important tool for the artistic creation itself. Due to its major role in the representation of the divine and the decorative arabesque motifs that the Arabic calligraphy possess, helped this form of writing to reach the status of the spiritual art through the fusion of texts and aesthetic quality it has.

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El Seed - -Mural on the Minart Tower of a Mosque in Gabes. Image via www.thenational.ae

The Beauty of Arabic Calligraphy and the Power of the Streets

The origin of most graffiti and stencil works is found in the use of letters. Many street and graffiti artists write, paint, stencil, or scribble different messages on the streets, and reflect their own interpretations and use of different typographies. For some, letters are starting points for elaborate abstract patterns and paintings, while numerous street artists still focus their work on conveying different messages, with the concern placed on social, political, and global issues. The ornamentation of the Arabic calligraphy and the calligraphic perfection that may sometimes obscure the reading of the text forces the reader to go beyond the precise meaning of the words into the radiating beauty of the message. The desire to convey a message that will reflect the need to break the stereotypes that the rest of the world has towards the East, Islam, and Arab countries, is a concern of the street artists El Seed. Internationally admired, the artist focuses his practice on the use of Arabic calligraphy and the text from the sacred book of Qur’an, or different texts from various philosophers, thinkers, or poets. Translating the desired quote to the Arabic language, El Seed is attempting to break the stereotypes through the beauty of the Arabic script. Known for the use and combination of the graffiti art and calligraphy, El Seed is in fact not the first artist to start this trend of working. It was, in fact, the Dutch street artist, Niels Shoe Meulman, who was the first to coin the term calligraffiti, used to describe the fusion of graffiti and calligraphy. His works reflect not only his interest in the art of calligraphy, but also of Abstract Expressionism, moving his work into abstraction and his manner of working into a physical exercise that concentrates on the mind as well as on the body. The two artists mentioned represent a small percentage of urban and street artists that focus their artistic practice on the development of calligraffiti. Please read about some other examples here.

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Left: Reza Abedini - Fitzcarraldo, movie poster / Right: Reza Aberdini - Poster art. Image via vangeva.com

The Text as an Image

One of the major elements of the Arabic script is the beauty of the ornamentation and the abstract quality it seems to possess. The use of the text and the conveying of messages that seem to be hidden behind the ornamentation could be linked to the quality of the Islam Design that is focused on the abstract geometrical repetition of circles and squares that often overlap and interlace as a beautiful arabesque. The mixture of the text, the arabesque, and a flat surface is the style of working of the famous graphic designer Reza Abedini. In his works, the mixture of the text and image create perfectly balanced compositions. His posters vibrate with the hidden messages, and poetic compositions of Iranian miniatures and manuscripts. The ability to weave the text into the image using his own lettering, help Abedini to create posters that both reflect the traditional and the modern. His posters and book covers are linked to the Arabic calligraphy and its spiritual quality, as they seem to reflect and vibrate with different hidden messages. The text becomes also an image, a visual element to be seen and understood intuitively, and represents a contemporary trend in postmodern graphic designs, where the influences of Arabic calligraphy and other forms of calligraphy could not be dismissed.

Influence of the Arabic Calligraphy Today

Calligraphy is the most recognizable of Islamic art forms. The fluid lines and elegance of the Arabic letters are central to the expression of the faith and the spirituality. Today, there is a new wave of artists that are using this traditional form of writing and putting a free-form twist on old techniques. Examples of their works are seen across a wide range of art and design disciplines. From tattoos that are the most obvious examples of the sacred texts to the intricate design patterns and abstract geometrical forms, this old technique of writing, is today reduced to often represent a symbol or a surface. The spiritual quality is transformed and re-used for a pure aesthetic purpose and aids different artists wishing to combine the text into their work, but who view the text as patterns not purely as a means for conveying a message across. This new way of looking at typography, and seeing this old tradition of writing in a new light, allows for the reduction of the text to few fonts, lines, or even just strokes. This abstract and reductive way of looking at the world, is in nature of the postmodernism thought that dominates today.

Editors’ Tip: Calligraffiti: The Graphic Art of Niels Shoe Meulman

In 2007, the Dutch artist, Niels Shoe Meulman, created a new term Calligraffiti, that is used to describe the fusion of graffiti street art and an old technique of writing, calligraphy. This book is an impressive collection of different examples of the artist’s work, which is well-known to the world for his use of the freehand calligraphy with the street edge aesthetic. The book also includes an essay by Adam Eeuwens about the artist and the significance of his work. It is a book that allows you a look into the world of one of the major graffiti artists today and aids the reader to gain a better understanding of the new and modern style of writing.

Editors’ Tip: Learn to Write Arabic Calligraphy

The author of the book, Omar Uddin, is a practicing Arabic calligrapher based out of Toronto, Canada. With a short introduction to the history of Arabic calligraphy, this book is a comprehensive guide to the art of the ancient writing. Breaking down the techniques, guiding the reader with traditional information and tips of using different modern technology, this book is a must if you are wishing to master Arabic calligraphy yourself.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Reza Abedini – Poster Art; El Seed – Lost Walls, Tunisa; Niels Shoe Meulman – Mural for the Nuart Festival.

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