Friday, 15 February 2008

DIFC Word into Art

This show is on until April 30th at DIFC and it’s FREE so you have absolutely no excuse not to see it! I first saw the Word into Art exhibition at the British Museum in London in 2006. Although the scope of the exhibition now transported to Dubai is smaller, it was great to see it again. The opening day was accompanied by panels, discussion forums and educational events specifically tailored to the local context so there was a lot more to it than just the exhibition.

Word into Art focuses on how script has been used in Middle Eastern art from the calligraphic traditions of Quranic and poetic verse, through to more innovative and modern manifestations. In the process it demonstrates how script is used to convey a diversity of symbolic, political or purely aesthetic meanings.

The exhibition is in four sections the first of which is ‘Sacred Script’. Given that the Arabic script used today is the same as that in which the Quran was originally revealed there is an inherent religious association with the script. In turn the Quranic text itself then prompted a major development of the written language into a structured system. Perhaps because of this there is a common assumption that all Arabic calligraphy constitutes verses from the Quran. However, this completely overlooks the rich poetic tradition in the Arabic speaking world and much of the calligraphic representation in this show was from classical poetry.

Interestingly there are a number of different calligraphic styles that developed at different periods of Arabic history. One of them the Nasta’liq was designed by a 15th Century calligrapher, inspired by the sight of geese flying across the sky. The most common is thuluth in which part of each letter slopes, making it more cursive than the block or kufic text, which preceded it. The letter Kun (Be) by Nassar Mansour on the left is very stylised kufic while Ghani Alani’s verses from the pre-Islamic poet Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma on the right are thuluth. The last line of this poem reads: ‘Half of man is his tongue, and the other half is his heart: the rest is only an image composed of blood and flesh’.

There are a number of other styles too and this is quite a contrast to the modern problem of very limited Arabic fonts - most newspapers, websites and software use just one. This problem was the subject of a presentation by the founder of the Khatt Foundation, which initiated a collaborative design project in Holland resulting in the creation of 5 new Arabic fonts (see

Section 2 explored the theme of ‘Literature and Art’ and included Farhad Moshiri’s paintings of pots, which are among the most striking images to have come out of Iran in recent years. Inscribing poetry on urns or pots goes back to the medieval Islamic period when a trend developed for uniting material and literary culture. The poem here is by Omar Khayyam and is called Drunken Lover. Intoxication is a common theme in classical poetry but is ambiguous as it also refers to the emotional or spiritual ecstasy of love and faith rather than straight substance abuse. I think Khayyam probably played with this ambiguity more than most, however!

The third section ‘Deconstructing the Word’ featured images made from words or based on letters. This included poetry in three different languages painted onto strips of silk and delicate script painted on bricks! However, I was struck by one particular piece in this section by Lassaad Metoui because of its similarity to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. The medium was black ink on paper and the choice of word was the Arabic for ‘path’, also a key philosophical concept in the far east and frequently the subject of calligraphic works.

The fourth and final section was ‘History, Politics and Identity’ and used a huge variety of mediums and images. One of these was the dafatir meaning ‘notebook’ in Arabic. The dafatir is an experimental medium of artist books that have emerged from Iraqi artists over the past few years. Hana Malallah’s book is based on the ancient poem ‘The conference of the birds’ by Farid al-Din Attar. This is a mystic tale of enlightenment but in this modern manifestation the book is ripped and the text illegible. Others contain scraps of newspaper, clothing and assorted debris from the street. Some have been partially burned and are displayed open with scorched covers and pages containing only some of the original artist content. What they represent is the profound loss of Iraqi heritage and culture as museums and libraries have been destroyed over the course of the war. Carleton College in Minnesota actually held an exhibition devoted entirely to these kinds of works by Iraqi artists in 2006 (see

Other interesting pieces in this section included Chant Avedissian’s homage to Egypt’s most famous and revered singer, Umm Kalthoum, and prints from Shada Ghadrian interpreting our modern and perhaps merging identities with Ctrl-Alt-Del.

For many more images and info from this show see the BZU Virtual Gallery site:
  • I will just repeat that this show is on until April 30th at DIFC and it’s FREE so you have absolutely no excuse not to see it ;)

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