To the letter
Contemporary Egyptian artists are exploring the resources of Arabic calligraphy, among them Omar El-Nagdi, writes Mohamed Mursi
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'God created perfection and absolute beauty in a world of eternal being before man was created. He created the world of the transcendental, light-giving logos before anyone could read it, as it preceded the creation of man. When God created man, his first command was: read' |
Calligraphy was not known to the Arabs when the Quran made their language the dominant tongue of the region. But it wasn't long after the establishment of the first Muslim empires, first in Mecca and later on in Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, that cohorts of talented scribes turned the art of writing into one of Islam's main decorative arts.
Arab artists today are still exploring ways of using calligraphy in their work, and sometimes it can fetch very high prices. Not long ago, a calligraphy piece by London-based Egyptian artist Ahmed Mustafa called the Night of the Israa sold for $850,000 at auction in Doha.
The Egyptian artist Omar El-Nagdi, whose work is inspired by the Islamic heritage, is another master of this kind of art. Born in Bab Al-Shaariya not far from the Al-Shaarani Mosque, El-Nagdi developed an eye for calligraphy from an early age. Visitors to the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris had the chance to admire some of his exceptional work not long ago.
El-Nagdi envisions his art in a wider perspective than the merely physical. This is how he puts it: "God created perfection and absolute beauty in a world of eternal being before man was created. He created the world of the transcendental, light-giving logos before anyone could read it, as it preceded the creation of man. When God created man, his first command was: read."
The Arabic alphabet includes all the elements of geometry in its three-dimensional as well as its two-dimensional forms. Looking at the Arabic alphabet, one can almost imagine the touch of a hand exploring its calligraphic potential, investigating its various paths, moving from the circular to the angular, following the curvatures of its nature and aspiring to the heights of its architecture.
Take the letter (Ì), for example, with its concave structure and elegant capping, or (ã), with its subtle composition and malleability of form. There is a poetry in the way the Arabic letters connect and a subtleness in the way they flow. In the hands of a skilled artist, the scope for innovation is immense, and in the hands of an adventurous one, it is almost unlimited.
Across the Arab world, many artists have pushed the boundaries of calligraphy, taking it from tradition and into the globalised world of contemporary appreciation. People like Jamil Hammoudi, Madiha Omar, Wagih Nahlah, Salwa Shoqeir, Othman Waqiallah and Ibrahim Al-Salhi have all experimented with the classical forms of calligraphy at some time in their careers, some taking the letters down unexpected paths.
To capture the gamut of classical calligraphy is not an easy task, but some artists have sought to go further and to explore horizons that extend beyond tradition. Some have turned the art of calligraphy into a riff on abstraction, for example, while others have infused it with the energy of expressionism. However, the link with the past remains intriguing, and even those who have wanted to explore the outer horizons of calligraphy have never lost their appreciation for the roots of their art.
The Iraqi artist Abdel-Ghani Al-Ani has said that Arabic calligraphy is an endless quest for perfection. It is like music or poetry: there is no end to exploration or boundary to the unknown. According to Al-Ani, "calligraphy is like the sea; it belongs to all. But if you take some water from the sea and place it in a bottle, then this bottle and this part of the sea are yours."