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October 2006
 

La voie est sous pieds' Sagesse Zen, Hassan Massoudy

sur terre il ya place pour tous'Schiller, Hassan Massoudy

The heart is a guide for the heart as soon as they meet, Hassan Massoudy, 2006

Tapestry detail, Rachid Koraichi

Dans L'Eclat de la Mer, Rachid Koraichi

Boy Soldiers, Laila Shawa, 2005

Gaza, Laila Shawa, 1992 - 2005

Citizen by Proxy, Wijdan

Rashm, Wjdan

 

Text Messages: Five Contemporary Artists and the Art of the Word
Exhibition essay by Polly Savage

A love of the divine word lies at the very heart of Islam. Since the need first arose to transcribe the holy text of the Qur’an, following the Revelation of Islam to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century AD, writing has been seen as an act of sacred devotion, a distant shadow of the divine pen which inscribes the destiny of all beings on the ‘guarded tablet’, the al-Lawh al- Mahfudh(1). The pre-Islamic Aramaic script of the Nabateans formed the precursor to Jazm, the script which would spawn over a hundred styles of Arabic, from the early angular Kufic script, to the flowing cursive Naskh, as artists and calligraphers strove for ever more profound means to reflect the epiphany of divine beauty through their work. As Islam spread around the globe, its tenets of inclusively and tolerance played through the act of writing, as successive cultures added their own influences to the Arabic script. This philosophy of experimentation and love of the word has led to a blossoming creative destiny that is still profoundly evident in both sacred and profane artistic practice across the Islamic world.

Every letter, every word and every verse of the Qur’an is understood to have not only an outward, exoteric significance or zahir, but also an intrinsic, esoteric meaning, or batin, which in turn has its own esoteric meaning, and so on, for seven layers of significance. Numerological values are also assigned to each letter of the Arabic alphabet which, according to legend, once contained an additional seven characters which at some point fell under a table and disappeared. Tradition holds that anyone who came into possession of the missing letters would, by virtue of beholding the alphabet in its entirety, acquire the ability to answer all questions, and so could decipher the ultimate meaning of existence.(2) The occult properties thus attributed to letters were studied as a science, and led to the transcribing of texts not only on sacred architecture and ceramics, but also onto a diverse range of items such as weapons, armour, and banners for battle, or vessels for administering medicine, in order to impart protective, talismanic properties to the user.

The talismanic qualities of the alphabet are invoked by Rachid Koraichi in his work. Born into a Sufi family, his upbringing under this mystical branch of Islam taught him an esoteric approach to the systems of signs with which people comprehend the world. The name Koraichi itself ties him to the historic clan of scribes, the Quaraishites, who inherited the responsibility to transmit the holy message of the Qur’an. Profoundly aware of this sacred heritage, Koraichi explores the writings of early Sufi mystics through his work ‘Path of Roses’, particularly the words of Rumi, Ibn ‘Arabi and al-‘Attar. Following the Rumi tradition of Sufism, ‘the artist unveils the beauty of Creation, thereby bringing us closer to the Being(3), and it is Koraichi’s search for a universal system of signs, an ‘alphabet of memory(4) that has led him to draw not only from Arabic scripts, but also Berber and Tuareg Tifinagh characters, magical squares, talismanic numbers and imaginary Chinese ideograms.(5) Working with textiles, steel, ceramics, paper, rose petals and light, Koraichi combines the formal and esoteric qualities of these signs to conjure sublime messages that transcend words, time and space.

Hassan Massoudy is an artist for whom the word itself remains the most sublime creative force. He speaks of his work as ‘a field of energy subjected to the rhythm that I impose on the movement of the letters…these dream images…unfold as the leaves unfurl when the seed becomes a tree…a group of dancers obeying the choreographer’s command’.(6)

Massoudy undertook rigorous apprenticeship with master calligraphers in Iraq as a child, before moving to Paris in 1969, where he studied at the Ecole des Beux Arts. His work features the texts of a diverse range of writers, from poet Charles Baudelaire and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Virgil and Ibn ‘Arabi. A sense of balance prevails in his work, whether between erudite discipline and artistic experimentation, or as played out through his understanding of ‘the line as a dynamic force...[which] must reflect two things: on the one hand strength and vigor, on the other abandon and grace’.(7)

Fathi Hassan works with a range of media, including video, photography, performance, painting and installation, but the presence of text is a thread that runs through his practice. Often overlaying photographic images, his writings resemble a form of kufic Arabic, yet remain resolutely illegible, playing with the notion of text as a vehicle of power. As the uncomprehending viewer, we are reminded of the dangers of attributing absolute authority to the written word, and the fragile relationship that exists between text and meaning. He also evokes a long history of language as an instrument of imperial authority, drawing in particular on his Nubian identity (‘I am not Marcel Duchamp, I am Tutankhamen’).(8) Occupying the stretch of the Nile to the south of Egypt, Nubia’s early civilizations date back over 7,000 years, and form a precursor to those of dynastic Egypt. It is in this region that what is now believed to be the earliest known examples of writing have been found (indeed the spoken word itself is found to originate in Africa, as linguistics trace all the most ancient languages of the world back to the continent). Subjected to a series of Imperial powers, Nubia’s early languages (such as the still largely undeciphered scripts of Meroe) have been successively displaced by conquering tongues. Hassan’s personal history echoes this experience of displacement; his family were relocated to Cairo in 1902 when their home was destroyed by the construction of the Aswan dam, and Hassan himself was displaced by the disastrous floods of the 1960s in Toscka, in the South of Egypt, and has lived in Italy ever since 1979. By reasserting the currency of vanquished texts and words, Hassan goes some way to reclaiming this ancient history and territory through his work.

As an artist, curator and scholar, Wijdan’s connections with the written word are many, and it is something to which she returns repeatedly in her artistic practice. She describes her recent work as ‘calligraffiti’, a reference to the Calligraphic school which provides her with ‘a form of artistic identity through which I am able to gratify my creative instincts and establish my individuality as a contemporary Arab and Islamic artist’.(9) Her Karbala series features single Arabic letters as memorials to the seventh century martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein. The event, in which he and seventy-seven of his family were betrayed and massacred by the Umayyad armies at Karbala, Iraq, stands for Wijdan as ‘the epitome of the greatest tragedy in Arab and Islamic history’. She references it because ‘yesterday’s Karbala is the Karbala of today and tomorrow; Palestine, Vietnam, Bosnia, Somalia are a few among many. I chose Karbala as a subject…because I saw a hundred past Karbalas and fear a thousand more to come’.(10)

Laila Shawa’s work is also explicitly informed by her perceptions of injustice specifically in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Using silk-screen printing and off-set lithography, she overlays photographic records of political graffiti from the walls of Gaza with bold colour and form. At the height of the first Intifada in the late 1980s, city walls became highly contested arenas of conflict. Subjected to an elaborate system of censorship, and denied access to print media, Palestinian factions employed graffiti as a vehicle of protest, an affirmation of community, and a means of recruitment. (11) Rapidly over-painted by Israeli security forces, these ephemeral messages of resistance are captured by Shawa, and given permanence, emphasis and circulation through her work. Shawa’s interventions in current political discourses may seem far removed from the meditative arts of sacred calligraphy, but the talismanic properties of the word are at play here as well, as these texts assume a role that transcends the mere semantic value of the words, becoming part of a wider narrative by virtue of their very existence.


1. Ali, Wijdan What is Islamic Art? Amman: Royal Society of Fine Arts p. 44
2. Lostia, Maryline (2001) ‘Rachid Koraichi: A Celestial Architecture’ in Rachid Koraichi: Beirut’s Poem/Path of Roses edited by Salah Hassan.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Salah Hassan (2001) Rachid Koraichi: Beirut’s Poem/Path of Roses Amman: Forum for African Arts.
6. Massoudy, Hassan (December 1990) The UNESCO Courier. Reproduced at http://perso.orange.fr/hassan.massoudy/unesenglish.htm
7. Massoudy, Hassan (2004) Calligraphies d’amour Paris: Albin Michel. Reproduced at http://perso.orange.fr/hassan.massoudy/english.ht
8. Hassan, Fathi cited by Rose Issa in ‘Of Lost Empires and Living Tribes’ in Schroth, Mary Angela (ed) (2000) Fathi Hassan, TransAfricana: artisti contemporanei Bologna: Lai-Momo
9. Ali, Wijdan (1994) Shawa Wijdan London: October Gallery p. 18
10. Ibid.
11. Peteet, Julie (1996) ‘The Writing on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada’ in Cultural Anthropology 11 (2) Washington D.C.: American Anthropological Association pp 139-159