Word art: Islamic calligraphy

With thousands of years of history and a passionate contemporary following, calligraphy is one of the treasures that remains popular across the world

Visitors to the new Islamic galleries at the famous Louvre art museum in Paris or to the recently launched Islamic wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will be treated to a wealth of objects decorated with the delicate touch of a calligrapher’s brush.

The extensive use of writing is one of the hallmarks of Islamic civilization where words frequently decorate buildings and objects. This art of writing or calligraphy has been made in all media throughout the course of Islamic history, from the seventh century to the present day, in almost all regions from the far Maghrib, or Islamic West, to India, Southeast Asia, and beyond.

As well as practicing the art on ceramics, calligraphers from ancient China through to medieval Britain and contemporary Iran have been creating works on a variety of surfaces. It remains a popular art form and while some who practice the craft favour traditional styles and methods, others are examining the aesthetic qualities of Arabic type. 

Sheila Blair, author of Islamic Calligraphy, has observed a move away from traditional methods. “Calligraphy is often one element of a multi-media artwork that can be either representational or abstract. In these works the balance has generally shifted from readability to visibility, as the calligraphy is meant to be appreciated more for its formal than its semantic qualities.”

Blair also highlights a growing trend in the use of contemporary materials: “Many calligraphers are replacing the pen with the brush, painting calligraphic compositions in oils, acrylics, and water colours, assembling them in collages, or working them in other media such as silk screen and etching.”

At The Ara Gallery in Dubai, Omani artist Saleh Al Shukairi’s solo show Letters of Gold ranges from work of classical calligraphy to contemporary abstract work that draws on the traditional art form.

Al Shukairi attended the Omani Calligraphy Institute in Al Seeb, where he learned the Riqa and Naskh scripts of Arabic calligraphy and since the 1990s has produced more than 160 artworks. Like other contemporary calligraphers he experiments with materials, colours, and techniques to produce his own style of calligraphy within the boundaries of the genre. His works depicted on a modern canvas in colourful shades are known for drawing out emotions in the viewer.

“I have been transforming the Arabic calligraphy alphabet for the past 25 years, using only bamboo pens to the paper and then to my canvas,” explains Al Shukairi. “After this time, I now believe that I have reached a point where I can feel my artworks are more than letters on canvas.”