Since the beginning, words have had a significant place in Muslim culture. Of course, the Qur’an, which literally means “recitation,” was regarded as God’s message. But, more importantly, pictures of humans and animals were frowned upon because they might distract people from their prayers; as a consequence, calligraphers channeled all of their ingenuity and imagination into the art form.
Faced with the same constraint, artisans and architects produced brilliant geometric shapes, many of which included language. The constraint of not being able to represent live creatures resulted in some of the world’s most enchanting décor.
This prejudice against the picture and in favor of the word persists. It’s no wonder, therefore, that an exhibition of candidates for the V&A’s Jameel award, which honors artists who are influenced by Islamic culture, has a complex, pattern-filled feel to it.
Documents are often used as artworks, with text copied on paper bags, carpets, or T-shirts. Writing will morph into decoration for visitors who are unable to read Arabic script: dots and curlicues, strokes and ligatures will dance on the cloth or paper.
However, this isn’t always a barrier; in many cases, the emphasis is on the word’s shape and what it symbolizes rather than the word itself.
This is evident in the work of Bushra Waqas Khan, a Lahore-based artist. Her source material is affidavit paper, which are printed sheets used for official papers in Pakistan and are decorated in the same way as passport pages and banknotes are.
She reassembles the different titles and motifs into stiff-looking Victorian ballgowns that are approximately a foot tall. The word Pakistan develops an elaborate hem when it is repeated again and over.
The notion of women as property is gently mocked here, as is colonialism, nationalism, and officialdom. Affidavit paper is often employed as evidence of possession.
Hand-woven words in shimmering red fade in and out of view in Hadeyeh Badri’s textiles, sometimes clearly defined, sometimes half-obliterated. They are Badri’s reworking of an old motif in Arabic poetry known as al-waqaf ala al-atlal, or “standing by the ruins,” and represent pieces of letters from her late aunt Shahnaz.
In it, the protagonist comes to a halt by the remnants of a campground or hamlet where he first encountered his lover many years ago and imagines her there once again. The words themselves are the ruins in Badri’s art, and looking at them brings Shahnaz to mind, her hopes and anxieties flashing through layers of recollection.
Farah Fayyad’s graphic designs bring ancient ideas into the 21st century. Kufic, the remarkable calligraphic style in which the earliest Qurans were penned, has been recreated into a font for the digital era by her. Kufic was ahead of its time, oddly thick and extended, like a 1970s sci-fi director’s vision of extraterrestrial writing.
Kufur, Fayyad’s interpretation, is warmer and more bulbous, but it’s serious business: cryptic phrases like “I wish we could run like the river” and “It will not defeat me” recall the spirit of 1968. In 2019, Fayyad found herself in the midst of Beirut street demonstrations, printing revolutionary slogans on T-shirts for people to take home and wear.
Saudi artist Ajlan Gharem’s work may seem out of place in the context of this preoccupation with the written word. His work, Paradise Has Many Gates, is a huge chain-link metal cage with a primitive dome and tower that resembles a mosque.
Beautifully stark photographs and a video of it in the desert outside of Riyadh are included in the show. However, since it is devoid of language, it remains abstract, relying on line and volume rather than life and blood. Should we presume it’s intentionally inoffensive given the setting – Saudi Arabia, where freedom of speech is severely restricted?
A “mosque” where you may read anything you choose, even the artist’s own religious devotion? Gharem may be walking a fine line, but it’s obvious that he considers this work to be subversive.
“A few years ago, doing this kind of work would have been too dangerous for me, but things have changed,” he told the Art Newspaper. “The mosque in my work is not a reflection of religion or faith, but rather the particular form of religiosity from which came extremism and fanaticism,” he says in a film produced for the show.
“It is that ideology, not the religion, that is the prisoner,” he says, a bit ambiguously.
The Jameel prize jury were interested enough to pick Gharem as the winner this year. However, they may have missed out on Iranian American Golnar Adili’s outstanding piece, Ye Harvest from the Eleven-Page Letter, which combines pure form, memory, and grief in a profoundly moving manner.
The Arabic (and Persian) alphabet ends with the letter Ye. It inscribes a broad curve when it occurs at the conclusion of a word. Adili, who spent most of her childhood apart from her late father, sifted through a lengthy handwritten letter he once wrote to “a lover,” spotting every instance of this word-final ye.
She treated them as sacred things, removing them from the text and expanding them to resemble a hundred cresting waves. They are turned into sculptures at the end of the project, raised on spindly wooden platforms, rigid black worms repeating one another in a long line.
“It was as if I wanted to bring my father back to life through his handwriting, but also to create an emotional graph of him.” Adili achieves deep emotion via meticulousness and abstraction in a manner that Muslim artists throughout history would recognize.