Calligraphy in Painting by Muslim Women at Berkeley Art Center

Letterforms have character. You might notice this when you choose a font. Or if you receive a handwritten letter. Writing is part of something larger than each of us, a part of culture, an acknowledgement of communication we agree on and value. Beautiful writing, generally thought of as calligraphy, can also have different meanings in different cultures. Islamic calligraphy, for example, arose as artwork in Muslim cultures, where depictions of God were forbidden, and pictures of animals or objects were viewed as idolatrous. While some created artworks featuring Arabic calligraphy were not religious, many works related in some way to the Qur'an.

The recent exhibition at the Berkeley Art Center, Universal Messages: New Vistas, Contemporary Muslim Women Artists in the Bay Area curated by Salma Arts, show how words combined with color, form, and materials can reflect a modern spirituality while still connecting to past works. Here are some of the paintings that spoke to me, beautifully and simply.

Rubina Kazi: Peace Be Upon You (2018)
mixed media on canvas
30 in. x 40 in.

As with many of the paintings in the show, the words are the clear focal point. Here, a banner reaches completely across the layered patterning, the sharp, straight edges in contrast to the soft focus in each of the openings. From her website, Rubina Kazi writes that she loves "Sufi music and the message of peace, love and tranquility across all religions and cultures." Between the links, the variegated textures contain both tranquility and mystery, a view unknowable.

Nabeela Sajjad: To God We Return (2018)
24 in. x 36 in.

Metallics, particularly gold, are traditional embellishments in Arabic calligraphy. Here, Nabeela Sajjad uses the curving gold lettering to balance the bold block words that become both the statement and the pattern. The diacritical marks are almost playfully painted in turquoise: accented accents. Nabeela Sajjad, according to her blog, is the founder of Islamic Art Exhibit, which promotes traditional and contemporary Islamic art, hoping to "build bridges between various faith groups through the tradition of visual arts." The bold swooping gold letterform asks us to keep returning to it and directs our eyes up.

Rabea Chaudhry: Fajr (2018)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. by 48 in.

I was drawn to Rabea Chaudhry's work particularly, perhaps for the complex layering and the exploration of many textures. The block lettering provides a sharp edge and contrast to the lacy patterns. Because of the colors and layered textures, these reminded me, in a way, of Miriam Schapiro's works, and the writing and mosque shape, below, add a spiritual layer. Her statement highlights the benefits of "selfless empathy and generosity." The masking technique she uses allows the textures to show through the letterforms, like a curtain opening.

Rabea Chaudhry: Jugni (2017)
acrylic on canvas
36 in. x 48 in.

Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy: The Truth (2012)
16 in. x 20 in.

In Bassamat Fayoumi Bahnasy's painting, the words take on the organic forms of birds, delicate hands, or angels, or currents of air or swirling water. The shine emanating from the top right is a gentle metallic gold, like a beam of light. Since the paint is applied so smoothly we focus on the shapes of the letters and feel that beam. The layering and movement combined with the colors allow the viewer to be part of this world.

I think what makes each of these painting sing is the combination of the careful and sensitive handling of the materials, colors, and calligraphy with a deep sense of how the world is available to each of us, yet larger than each of us. Spirituality can mean different things to different people but feel similar. Words, whether we can read them or not, stand for human beings. These works show how we can connect and communicate, across boundaries, through visual art.

I've posted these previously, but here are a couple examples of traditional Islamic calligraphy again (from a visit to The Met, spring 2018).

Panel of Nasta'liq Calligraphy
Calligrapher: Sayyid Amir 'Ali
mid-17th c.

Folio from the "Tashkent Qur'an"
Syria or North Africa
late 8th-early 9th c.
"based on early form of kufic script with no diacritical marks to distinguish the letters, and with very little illumination"