Calligraphy is so deeply embedded in Arab communities’ lives that it has become something of a banal sight to most who live in its direct proximity everyday. But the history of the evolution of Arabic calligraphy finds itself intertwined with the origins of abstract art in the Arab world - and even its evolution beyond the region - for centuries.
Whether for its aesthetic malleability as an alphabet which naturally lends itself to create forms out of every letter, or the social and political meanings it carries, Arabic calligraphy and art have almost never been separate; leading even to the development of an entire art movement devoted to the intersection between calligraphy and modern, abstract art: hurufiyya.
An exhibit in New York University’s Grey Art Gallery titled Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s, takes on the evolution of that art form and its variations, gathering nearly 90 works by artists from across the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The artists also come from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, - including Amazigh, Armenian, Jewish and Persian - and from different time periods, to highlight the traces of similarity - and of difference - that exist within the region’s rich history of calligraphy art.
Existing within a history of colonialism, decolonisation, and even more recently, identity politics, abstract art in the Arab world has existed at the intersection of calligraphy (and politics) for decades. The exhibit's description explains that Arab abstract artists draw inspirations from "Arabic calligraphy, geometry and mathematics, Islamic decorative patterns, and spiritual practices," to "the point that they re-defined and complicated the genealogies and origin of so-called "abstract" art.
The exhibition is drawn from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation based in Sharjah, UAE, curated by Suheyla Takesh, and Lynn Gumpert of the Grey.
Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair's Interform.