Artwork: Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Two Lovers La Roue (detail)
The written word has always been a centerpiece of Islamic art, for unlike many sects of the Christian church, Islam follows the Second Commandment, which states, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6 (KJV)
With the injunction on graven images fully in place, Islam developed a visual tradition rooted in literacy, giving its practitioners countless opportunities to read the writing on the walls. In this way, Islam maintains a powerful connection between the hand of the artist and the word itself, developing writing as an art all its own.
In celebration, Merrell Publishers presents Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Caligraffiti, a glorious compendium of six decades of Arabic and Persian word art. Compiled by authors by Rose Issa, Juliet Cestar, and Venetia Porter, Signs of Our Times presents the work of more than 40 modern and contemporary artists who have revisited and revived the practice of Arabic and Persian calligraphy. Divided into three sections, the book examines at Innovation, Exploration, and Circumnavigation, looking at the ways in which Middle Eastern cultures have embraced the art of the word during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Signs of Our Times is a breathtaking survey of the discipline, which finds the word manifest in a wide array of mediums. The book presents traditional and subversive depictions of the word, showing us the ways in which artists breathe new life into an historic practice. The depictions are not exclusively religious as they take on cultural, political, aesthetic, and literary topics for consideration. What becomes apparent as you page through the book is that the use of the word is as personal and idiosyncratic as handwriting itself.
Sami Sayegh (b. Lebanon, 1945) explains, “My first experience of art revolved around what cannot be written and what cannot be said. I wanted to liberate calligraphy from the language and from the meanings of words, and return to the moment of its birth, to the universe of signs and symbols, when letters were hanging between mud and water. It was imperative to distinguish between the calligraphy’s role as a medium of communication and its other mission of aesthetic beauty. Separating the two roles in necessary in order to understand the polarity of calligraphy, and therefore to try to deal with it—because you look at calligraphy in order to read, you don’t see it, really. When you let yourself become immersed in meandering calligraphic beauty, reading becomes secondary.”
It is here that we discover the underlying tension inherent in the work, and what makes it so compelling: the pull between the aesthetic form and the need for meaning. When one is literate in the language, one feels it most fully; for those of us who cannot read the words, we can still receive its message. The word holds the power that we give to it: but it is not the word that is powerful, it is us, animating it. Thus, whether literate or not, we are reminded that words are simply symbolic vessels; they are not meaning itself—this is where we breathe life into ideas.
All artwork: Courtesy of Merrell Publishers.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.