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Contemporary Calligraphy from the Middle East in New York

The work of more than a dozen influential artists from the Middle East, including Ahmed Mostafa from Egypt, offers a rare glimpse into the contemporary Arab and Iranian artistic calligraphy

Ahram Online, Friday 11 Nov 2011
Hassan Massoudy, Untitled, 2011, ink and pigments on paper (Photo courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery)
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Written Images: Contemporary Calligraphy from the Middle East, curated by noted art historian Karin von Roques, explores the role of traditional Islamic calligraphy and symbols in the contemporary Middle Eastern consciousness. The exhibition opened on 10 November at Sundaram Tagore gallery in New York and will continue until 3 December. Egyptian national Ahmed Mostafa is among the exhibiting artists.

Arabic calligraphy in all its aesthetic and linguistic complexity is little understood in the West and often regarded as an art form belonging to the classic Islamic arts and, therefore, to the past. In fact, it plays an important role in contemporary Arab and Iranian art. For centuries, the written word has been at the centre of Islamic visual culture— a legacy that persists even today.

Artists including Iraqi Hassan Massoudy, and Tunisian Nja Mahdaoui were among the first to look at writing from an entirely new perspective and reposition calligraphy in the contemporary context. They have deftly expanded its potential so it is image as well as language. For them and the other artists in this show, writing is more than the legible word; they use it as a pictorial, formal element, referencing a multitude of issues—religious, social, political and personal.

Working with different media, including paint on canvas, collage, ink on paper, gold leaf and silkscreen, these artists take traditional Arabic script and symbols as their point of departure. Qatari artist Yousef Ahmad distills Arabic letters into abstract shapes and gestural marks that sweep across dreamlike mixed-media surfaces. Syrian artist Khaled Al-Saai is inspired by poetry and Sufi philosophy and paints spacious landscapes in which words float, overlap and follow their own particular rhythm. Offering a nuanced view of the culture of the Middle East, these innovative artists create complex contemporary works that draw on the spiritual depth of ancient Islamic art.

The full roster of artists is as follows: Yousef Ahmad (Qatar), Lulwah Al-Homoud (Saudi Arabia), Khaled Al-Saai (Syria), Chaouki Chamoun (Lebanon), Golnaz Fathi (Iran), Hakim Ghazali (Morocco), Ali Hassan (Qatar), Rachid Koraïchi (Algeria), Nja Mahdaoui (Tunisia), Hassan Massoudy (Iraq/France), Ahmed Mater (Saudia Arabia), Ahmad Moualla (Syria), Ahmed Mostafa (Egypt).

Established in 2000, Sundaram Tagore Gallery is devoted to examining the exchange of ideas between Western and non-Western cultures. The gallery focuses on developing exhibitions and hosting not-for-profit events that encourage spiritual, social and aesthetic dialogues.

Sundaram Tagore is a New York-based art historian and gallerist. He was the first gallerist to focus exclusively on globalisation, assembling a roster of artists from around the world. A descendant of the influential Indian poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, he promotes East-West dialogues through his contributions to numerous exhibitions as well as his eponymous galleries and their multicultural and multidisciplinary events.

Karin von Roques is a noted German curator and art historian who, having studied Islamic art, specialises in contemporary Arab and Iranian art. She is an authority on the Arabic region and its culture and has garnered much praise for exhibitions on modern calligraphy of the Arab world.

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