Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Alexandria Exhibition Celebrates 'Hurufiyya' Art Movement
Soha Elsirgany
Ahram Online
Sunday 18 Dec 2016

The exhibition comprises valuable artworks from the Barjeel Foundation's collection

Hurufiyya refers to the usage of Arabic words and/or letters in artworks. A new exhibition currently on display at Bibliotheca Alexandrina celebrates this very art form.

Titled “Hurufiyya: Art & Identity,” the exhibition features a selection of artworks from the 1960s and up till the early 2000s, by a number of Arab artists including Omar El-Nagdi, Madiha Omar, Shakir Hassan El-Said, Hassan Massoudy, Dia Azzawi, Nasser Al Salem, Ahmed Mater, eL-Seed, among others.

Running until 25 January, the exhibition is curated by the Barjeel Foundation, founded by Emirati commentator Sultan El-Qassemi, to manage, preserve and exhibit his art collection of over 600 works from the Middle East.

“At our current moment [hurufiyya] may be indistinguishable from calligraphy. However, its appearance in the middle of the 20th century marked a break from a previous era of creative output. Whereas calligraphy carried with it a rich and long-standing tradition of master-apprentice relationships, modern hurufiyya came in an era of highly individual exploration,” writes curator Karim Sultan in the exhibition statement.

Sultan adds that pioneers and most innovative practitioners of this art form were producing art in an increasingly globalized world, and were probably influenced by their “modern experiences of travel, of exile, international life and national concerns.”

The displayed works vary greatly in style, and range from abstract works centered on the individual letter as in Samir Sayegh’s piece ‘Alef’, to works that incorporate text areas as a visual element in the artwork, such as Dia El-Azzawi’s ‘Mualaqqas’. Other featured artists experimented with more progressive mediums, like Nasser Al-Salem and his labyrinthine ‘Corian Sculpture’ depicting the Quranic verse: “Whoever Obeys Allah, He Will Make For Him A Way Out.”

Syrian artist Madiha Omar is widely celebrated as a pioneer of the hurifiyya movement, with her early explorations during the 1940s looking at the Arabic letter’s formal qualities in contemporary art.

In her 1950 essay “Arabic Calligraphy: An Inspiring Element in Abstract Art,” Omar argued that the Arabic letter needed a more "meaningful and powerful life," to bring that art form from a stage of stillness bounded by limitations and into a more free form of expression, one that was closer to the dynamic and restless modern age.

Other pioneers highlighted in the exhibition’s pamphlet were Egyptian artist Omar El-Nagdi and Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan Al-Said.

Sultan also highlighted that the exhibition “does not aim to introduce hurifiyya in an encyclopedic way, but that it rather seeks to introduce various snapshots of moments, approaches, and [present] artists and their concerns throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century.”

The display at Bibliotheca also comprised supporting texts that spotlighted some of the hurufiyya movement’s main trends or important “moments.”

The first moment is titled ‘A New Classicism,’ which reveals how some artists began taking a more open approach to calligraphy; one that was more abstract, ornamental or spiritual than traditional writing.

The second spotlight, titled ‘Modernism: Language and Identity,’ explores how 20th century artworks featured experimentation with the forms of the letter and word. In those works artists were equally concerned with the identity of the Arabic language and sought deeper meanings through abstract approaches.

The third text, ‘Contemporary Approaches,’ looks at more contemporary works in the wake of new technologies and mediums, and assesses how they allowed artists to expand hurufiyya beyond the early pioneers of the movement, and to express contemporary themes and concerns in new ways.

On 30 November, Lebanese writer Charbel Dagher, who wrote the book Arabic Hurufiyya: Art and Identity, gave a lecture that further contextualized the exhibition.

He argued that the emergence and development of this art form constituted a response by Arabs to their surroundings, as well as a form of experimentation with European and western art in general.

“Response is a way of discourse. Hurufiyyat hold some of our conversations with others,” Dagher said.

“In the 19th century when modernity came into the Arab world, in Egypt during the time of Khedive Ismail, it killed all previous arts that Arabs were exceptionally good at,” he added.

In parallel, under the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, calligraphers felt that their art was being ignored, and started looking for new channels through which they could make their work more appealing” and so “started placing [their work] in a new frame, one that was similar topaintings,” asserted Dagher.

Dagher highlighted that despite being concerned with Arabic words and letters, Hurrufiya is an offshoot of modern art, and not a development of calligraphy.


The exhibition opened on 30 November and runs till 25 January

Small Hall, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria

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