While Asian and European calligraphy is of greater antiquity, Islamic calligraphy has been used more extensively over the past fourteen centuries. Arabic letters have a natural potential for transformation into beautiful ornamental forms, and the ways in which Arabic calligraphy is used continue to be astonishingly varied and imaginative.
Calligraphy means 'beautiful writing' and was originally applied only in sacred contexts, but contemporary use encompasses the decoration of both religious and civic buildings, as well as adornment of aesthetic objects. Artists have gone beyond the use of calligraphy as decorative writing and have fashioned it into innovative forms of fine art in painting and sculpture.
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The inherent musicality of calligraphy in its cursive scripts is well suited to the dynamics of painting and has inspired artists to shape and reshape letters as creative elements in rhythmic compositions. In the Sultanate, the art of calligraphy is practiced by a comparatively small, but dedicated number of artists.
Sami Al Gawi & Saleh Al Shukairi
Two of the country's leading calligraphic artists, Sami Al Ghawi and Saleh Al Shukairi, held a joint exhibition, each displaying fifteen artworks at the Omani Society for Fine Arts last Sunday.
The opening by His Excellency Dr Hamed Said Al Oufi, Undersecretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, was followed on five successive nights by workshops by Saleh and Sami, designed to promote calligraphy and mentor aspiring young artists. While Sami's practices predominantly classic forms of calligraphic art, Saleh concentrates on abstract forms.
Both artists are determined to advance calligraphy as an art form with unique Omani styles. Their mission includes educating the public and supporting emerging artists. To that end, Sami has hung a sequence of drawings that show, step by step, the painstaking processes involved in creating a perfect work of calligraphic art.
Patience and Exactitude
As Sami took me on tour explaining how a preliminary sketch evolves into a beautiful work of art, I was impressed by the degree of patience and exactitude involved. We should not forget that Arabic calligraphy began, and still endures, as a devotional art and sacred endeavour in copying the Holy Qur'an, the word of God. It is a labour-intensive art that requires practised discipline and months of dedicated application to complete a major work.
Sami Al Ghawi showed how, for example, diamond dots are used to measure distances within compositional structures and how incisions are made in the paper to ensure a flawlessly straight edge on the extended rhythm of line in a letter. "Everything is made by hand – the pens, the paper, the ink and of course the drawing and painting."
It was fascinating to see Sami's tools on display – traditional bamboo pens with points ('nibs') of various sizes, a fork-like bamboo pen, a fine cutting implement, an ink pot and an exquisitely worked metal pen case, representing the esteem in which the art is held.
The exhibition is unique in that it is the first one in Oman to include an explicit educational dimension. Sami's step-by-step sequences which are essentially draft sketches sometimes culminating in a finished piece, sometimes not, succeed in conveying the technical sophistication of this ancient art - and illuminate its meticulous artistry. After viewing Sami's works which begin with a concise icon expressing the title of the exhibition, Ink and Colour, the visitor has gained an enriched understanding of the art of calligraphy and is ready for Saleh Al Shukairi's abstract works.
Saleh's Amazing Abstracts
The Saleh Al Shukairi collection includes large calligraphy-inspired paintings on canvas and a number of sculptures including two flat mural pieces. Let's start with the sculptures, which are rendered either in raw mud or silver metal-like plastic. Lettered mud pieces on strange, flattened pyramid-like forms evoke ancient times and suggest important but undecipherable messages lost in time.
An undulating mud scroll is purposely cracked and still drying. Letters reach out in crazy, random crown-like formations, but the deep-cut wall sculptures are disciplined, discreetly toned in beige and admirably shaped. They seem to set the stage for the paintings.
I am captivated by a large canvas in green and blue displaying an elegant sweep of giant letter forms. I think of green fields where blue ocean currents flow. Suddenly there is a bright red rotated square that seems to signal the viewer. Saleh says: "The red mark draws the viewer into the picture. It stands out as a complementary colour to green. The painted letters are inspired by real ones. As an assemblage in the painting, the letters do not say anything, but amount to a study in form and flow."
Later, famous Omani artist, Anwar Sonya, joins me as I go back to admire this painting and a similar one with flowing blue letters on black, and layers of red calligraphy faintly showing through the dark ground. Anwar's opinion of these works is as high as mine. We are also struck by a huge brown canvas with large, dynamic letters in oil, brushed in outline with yellow and whitish chalk. Seeping into the cloudy brown background of the painting is Farsi script quoting a poem by Omar Khayyám that relates his romantic love for a beautiful Persian girl.
I have watched Saleh Al Shukairi's art evolve over the past decade or so, and feel that he has turned a corner in this exhibition with what he calls "my new style which is looser and more organic". Saleh is an explorer whose fascination with letters began in childhood when curiosity combined with competiveness as Saleh was sure he could make a more attractive script than the boy next door who was attempting to draw the Arabic letter 'wow'. That letter with its rounded head still appears in Saleh's decidedly contemporary works.
Advancing the art of calligraphy
Saleh is an advocate of new design techniques and does not distain the use of computer graphics and screen printing techniques to achieve the freer, more interesting effects he envisions. Next Shukairi will participate in the prestigious art fair, Art Dubai. His deep commitment to calligraphy is evidenced by the fact he is also working on a book that traces the history of calligraphy in Oman.
Sami studied extensively with the Turkish master calligrapher, Mehmet Özçay and has been carefully practicing the art for more than thirty years. Like Saleh, he is passionate about the advancement of calligraphy in Oman and is dedicated to ensuring that this time-honoured art has a bright future with young Omani artists. I keep remembering the words of Sami as he described the meaning of one of his works: "The verse in this piece is like a blessing, worshipping God as we do in prayer five times a day after saying Allah Akbar…God the Merciful, the Almighty. I submit all my life, all my worshipping to Allah through prayer, and in this noble art."