Duration: 13th June – 2nd August
Venue: Galeri Chandan, Publika
For the coming month of Ramadhan 1436H, Galeri Chandan celebrated this month by holding an Islamic art exhibition from 13th June 2015 until 2nd August 2015. The exhibition involves four calligraphy artist: Dr Nor Azlin Hamidon, Firdaus Mahadi, Mohd Fadil Sulaiman and Shah Tumin.
The theme for this year’s exhibition is Tawaf. It is the sequence of Nuqtah,an exhibition from two years ago, which also involves the work of four artists. In Nuqtah, Firdaus Mahadi and Mohd Fadil Sulaiman joined the exhibition and strived for the concept of Nuqtah as the beginning of an artwork which is made as a basis of all writings according to tradition. Thus, the idea of Nuqtah is not the end of an art work, but is a beginning.
Islamic Calligraphy in the History
It is true that the development of Islamic calligraphy as it is today are indebted to great calligraphers who put in their all and strive for the perfect cursive scripts especially Ibn Muqlah and Ibn al-Bawwāb. However, the idea of dividing Islamic calligraphy to divine and secular art is again rejected by Khatibi and Sijelmassi. The two scripts evolves in parallel. The predominance of the angular script never led to the elimination of the cursive script. The continuity of their existence are rooted in the culture of Islam in its different manifestation but similar importance.
This is supported by Burckhardt, who stresses that none of the various styles of Islamic calligraphy, born at different periods, has even fallen into disuse. On Kufic and Naskh styles, he even elaborates:
The opposition between the two trends in calligraphy – the one accentuating the static form of letters and the other blending them in a continuous flow – is never absolute; in every phase of development, syntheses were made, such as Muhaqqaq whose entire beauty lies in the fact that the polarization of both trends is carried to the extreme limit, without, however, destroying the unity of the whole…
Ibn Muqlah (886-940), the pioneer who contributed to the integration of geometry into the cursive rule of writing and known as ṣahīb al-khatt al-manṣūb (master of the proportioned script), gained fame chiefly for inventing a system of proportional writing based on the principles of geometric design (ḥandasah al-hurūf). His system of proportion was based on measurement by dots. The dot was formed by pressing the nib of the qalam (reed pen) on paper until it opened to its fullest extent, after which it was released evenly and rapidly. This produced a square on edge, or a rhombus. The size of the dot affected only the size of the writing; the relative proportions of letters remained constant for each individual script. Placing dots vertex to vertex, Ibn Muqlah then proceeded to straighten the Kufic Alīf, which has been bent to the right, and adopt it as his standard of measurement. The next step was to standardise the individual letters of the various corrupted secular scripts by bringing them into accord with geometric figures. By giving each letter a proportional relation (nisbah) to the Alif, Ibn Muqlah was able to construct a canon of proportions for the entire alphabet. This allowed the creation of a number of systematic methods or templates for each of the major scripts, which henceforth could be produced accurately to scale. The canonical scripts, known collectively as al-Aqlām al-Sittah were Thuluth, Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Riq’ah, Tawqī’ and Raihān. Of these scripts, Thuluth was to attain the greatest importance in view of its nearly exclusive use for monumental inscriptions and for sūrah headings in the Qur’ān. Naskh, originally a minor and somewhat disdained script, became the preferred style for literary manuscripts and small Qur’āns, especially during the Ottoman period. Muhaqqaq and Raihan achieved the peak of their fame in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when they were used for writing the splendid Mamluk and Mongol Qur’āns, the former scripts for large copies and the latter for smaller ones. Riq`ah was employed for correspondence, while the use of tawqī’ was restricted to royal decrees and official letters.
The geometrical basis for building the art form in the letters of the calligraphy in general has the same quality as the foundation of arabesques that illuminate an object, architecture or book, along with the calligraphy. This is stressed by Khatibi and Sijelmassi as:
Calligraphy thus has its own sculptural autonomy as an art which is extremely abstract, and within which one can discern (as certain researchers have done) in geometry, even a mathematical quality, of a sign.
From this point of view, a relationship between calligraphy and ornamentation is established.
The contribution of Islam towards the development of Arabic calligraphy does not end in the physical appropriation, transformation and aesthetic properties. Islamic calligraphy also carries the history of a Muslim’s mind and spirituality, understood from its world view. Islamic art does not revolve around images and icons. In Islamic world-view, Allah is transcendent and beyond figural representation. He is not presented in the form of an image. Instead, He reveals Himself in His words, sacred words which form the Qur’an. Islamic art essentially recapitulates these words, echoes them, thus creating an ambiance which enhances one’s religiosity. Khat or calligraphy is one of the best forms of expression for this.
Furthermore, the creation of an art work does not emphasize the outer forms of man and nature. Muslim artists as a theomorphic being and a servant of God, prefer to leave the outer forms of nature and the material world and rather concentrate on the inner reality of things and the world of spirits. This make their art abstract in nature and rich in non-natural and geometric designs or patterns. Islamic calligraphy complies with the concentration on the inner reality, in its aesthetic forms and its written words. The form of calligraphy, whether cursive in nature or angular and stiff, represents the beauty that responses with the spirituality. Added by the written words, either from the words of God, the Hadiths or wiseman sayings, the beauty in meaning is enhanced. In most cases, the art objects of the Muslim peoples were to be constant reminders of Tawhid.
As a divine art, Islamic calligraphy is also related to mysticism. In order to apprehend calligraphy and its beauty, one has to feel the infinite presence of God involving both his body and mind, and also his soul – conceived as ecstatic thought. The invocation and contemplation spark the feeling of the divine presence. There in lies a consideration which must be cleared up to permit a better understanding of calligraphy.
Moreover, there are infinite possibilities of the creativity process, when the use of writing and letters are transformed into something other than words. The calligraphy may carry the possibilities of iconographic values, especially in the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes, as represented in the shape of human, praying in the tashāḥud form. The tradition of creating the Islamic calligraphy in accordance to the shape of man and animals is the tradition of Shi’ites since the early nineteenth century. The letters are also stretched and curved to embody the shapes of animals such as birds, lion, elephants and other animals.
Other beauty of Islamic art, according to Shabout, is how Arabic letters can be manipulated and used like instruments to create visual music:
The Arabic script can be a dance of ascending verticals, descending curves, and temperate horizontals, beautifully choreographed to achieve a measured balance between the static individual form and its rhythmic movement. A great variability in form can be reached by the right play of letters and words. Letters and words can be compacted into a dense area or drawn out to a great length. They can be angular or curving, and small or large.
Theme of Exhibition: Tawaf
This year, Tawaf is the theme selected for this exhibition. Tawaf is Circumambulation; a key element of the Hajj ritual. Performed seven times around the Ka‘ba anti-clockwise, starting from the eastern corner in which the Black Stone is embedded, the circling is believed to demonstrate the unity of the believers in the worship of the One God, as they move in harmony together around the Kaaba, while supplicating to God.
Tawaf, however, is not a theme of this exhibition of its true spiritual action. It represents the center of submission towards the Almighty Allah in which all muslims from all over the world prostrate. The action of surrounding the Ka’abah, is the main representation as well, as in the exhibition, the works of four artists surrounding the gallery is portrayed as four angles, as each has his or her own style and characteristics.
The exhibition of four artists is held to manifest this spirit, which comprises of four angles in representing their spiritual experiences through their works of art. The main manifestation is on how to interpret the beauty of the sacred journey and spiritual ambience on canvases. Thus, the unity of all these four artists’ artworks is in the principle of art and the end purpose, whereas the elements and concepts vary from one artist to another. It is unity in multiplicity. Unity is in the meaning, whereas in the form it varies.
Its an enrichment towards the interpretation of Islamic art which has become problematic in terms of its own definition. For these four artists, their journey in art began as pure calligraphers. The beauty of Islamic calligraphy has its own aesthetics and identity; and recognized throughout the Muslim world. However, the amalgamation of two traditions between the West and the East in contemporary art demands has made them step out into the new reality. Having their own art crowd who favor the pure calligraphy, their attempts are in bringing the new form of artworks and introducing them as new style of its own. It’s between the hard and soft-edged style, between the use of letters and the use of sacred quotation, between the movement and stiffness of lines and forms, and between the eligibility and the impressive choices. They are all in the interpretation of art.
For Nor Azlin Hamidon, her works of art is defined in her lines and movements, in diptych paintings and also motifs and collage style. Since 1988, her involvement in calligraphy is of great force. By winning the first place in the national Islamic Calligraphy contest, she embarks her journey in this field by producing art works and completing her PhD in Contemporary Islamic Calligraphy Paintings of Malaysia. Her participation in University of Malaya’s art exhibitions shows another strength in terms of contemplating the contemporary art work within this style. The upcoming solo exhibition will be sponsored by the Pakistani Calligraphy Guild in October 2015 which identifies the strength of her artwork in her newest style of expressionistic approach.
Her feminism style appears, in choice of colours and the soft strokes. Having most of her works in purple, green and blue, the gradation of colours is so soft and balanced. Most of her paintings are proposing the pairing-binary concept, the interdependent elements in life and balance, either in ecosystem or basic human needs. The artwork titled Mother and Father has shown the soft movement of calligraphic strokes; the abstract figure of a mother is constructed through the Jali Diwani style of writing whereas the father is in an abstract shape of a rounded calligraphy representing the loving hug, love and solidarity. The dyptich style of Sky and Earth has shown the same stroke and motifs of the work titled Ya Haiyu Ya Qaiyum, which has become her own personal character in making strokes. Whereas in some of the works, the use of blinking gemstones as collage represents the striking stars in the dark sky, as represented in the small dots filling up the empty spaces of Jali Diwani. The strokes and movements of the lines going downwards were also found in the work Lafzul Jalalah and Muhammad as to unify her overall style. All her works show the interpretation of her spiritual journey and thinking, as the idea of relativity and interdependence of this universe of each other shows that the One and only who does not need anything is our Mighty Allah.
Shah Tumin, is a talented artist, embarking his journey as someone related closely with calligraphy since a young age. He has won a few national calligraphy contests and has his own art followers. His art work shows the vibrant colours, movement of calligraphic strokes and the beauty of calligraphy in its own term and aesthetics. Mohd Shah shows his strength in combining colours and the use of dark and light colours to create visual depth which captures the eye. The use of mixed media, especially in treating the surface for having the visual and actual textures are also his own mark. Either by using Kufi Mushafi, Jali Diwani, Nasakh or Thuluth, he shows the great ability as a calligrapher, whereas the strength in using visual art language arises in his artworks as well. The latest style of his own in proposing merely calligraphic strokes are outstanding, and the dancing lines as marked in contrast colours draws attention. He created a light source in the yellow background.
Mohd Shah’s artwork with Ayatul Kursi, is quite similar with Mohd Firdaus Mahadi’s works. Both of them chose the universe image as the background, very dark and mysterious, a space without boundary and enlightened with light colours that rivet the eyes. None of the beauty of the world exceeds the beauty of light, as its the only source of sight in the whole darkness.The sky is where all the viewers wonder with spectacle; it is an area where human lives are restricted to. In his artwork Asmaul Husna, Firdaus has used up the positive space of the word Allah and fill it up with all ninety nine names of Allah, which incredibly fit and portrays the minute details and complex work plan. Whereas in his work Basmalah, it reminds us of the work of master calligrapher al-Ustaz Abbas al-Baghdadi, the painting itself is a reminder of how strict the rules of writing calligraphy, and dots as to measure the length and accurate angle of writing has finally become the beauty by itself where the aesthetics has overcome the linguistic function. In Surah al-Rum, Firdaus has an abstract background, different from the space and galaxy background and different in colour. In his final painting, Mata Ayah is a metaphore by itself, quoting from a Malay poem about the experience of a father waiting the return of his son, using visual elements as a symbol of personal experience and feelings.
The fourth angle of Kaabah in tawaf is represented by Mohd Fadil Sulaiman, on his own capacity of mastering Islamic calligraphy, he is able to control his hands to get the accurate strokes. The transparency of the calligraphic letters are very significant, as a tradition and influence from the Turkish style, as well as Chinese calligraphy. The use of red and black ink on paper, or acryllic on canvas, has made close relations with Chinese calligraphy. Other Malaysian artists also paints Islamic calligraphy using chinese brush and ink on paper, but the significant difference is in the rules of writing. While painting, Mohd Fadil is able to follow the strict rules of writing and create the effect successfully. The use of square stamps with his signature in Kufi Murabba’ in red ink adds the ambience and feeling of Chinese calligraphy. In summary, his artwork is an interpretation of the amalgamation of the art of the east with the Islamic calligraphy and an attempt that coins his name with this style.
By implication, all these four artists, starting partly as the group of Nuqtah has shown the maturity in ideas and techniques for this Ramadhan 2015 exhibition. It is by the barakah of this blessed month of Ramadhan that could open an opportunity for the role players in art in searching for the true meaning of the spiritual journey through the contemporary Islamic calligraphy artworks. Perhaps, the blessing will continue throughout the year. Waallahu ‘Alam.
 Khatibi and Sijelmasi, Op.Cit., p. 98.
 Burckhardt, T., Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, England: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976, p. 49.
 See Safadi, Yasin Hamid, Islamic Calligraphy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978, pp 16-18.
 Ibid, pp 52-77.
 Khatibi and Sijelmassi, Op. Cit., p. 7.
 ‘Abdullāh Yūsuf ‘Ali, Op. Cit., Surah Al-Syura, 42: 11, p. 595.
 Al-Faruqi, Op.Cit., 163.
 Ibid., 165.
 Tashāhud is the sit in the ṣolāh (prayer).
 Shabout, Op.Cit., p. 153.
Dr. Nor Azlin Hamidon
Mohd Fadil Sulaiman