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October 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1399

The Decorated Word: Writing and Picturing in Islamic Calligraphy. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Reviewed by Abigail Balbale


Those unfamiliar with the breadth of Islamic art frequently assume that the importance of calligraphy derives from a broader prohibition against figural representation. However, as this remarkable exhibition shows, from the earliest Islamic period to the present, calligraphy has not replaced figures but operated alongside them and functioned as imagery. The exhibit engages with recent scholarly conversations about ‘the iconicity of script’, that is how to understand writing visually, without assuming it has a primarily linguistic meaning.(1) Together with the accompanying catalogue, the show offers both examples of writing as image and a primer on the uses of writing in Islamic contexts from the ninth century to the present.(2) The roughly fifty objects, all from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, are presented in the Hagop Kevorkian Gallery, a single room off the main Islamic galleries, which serves as a special exhibition space. 

The objects range in material from codices and folia on paper and parchment to coinage, metalwork, ceramics, a carpet and works of contemporary sculpture and painting. The vast majority of inscriptions featured on these objects are in Arabic but some are in Persian or Ottoman Turkish and several are in pseudo-script. Didactic wall labels offer the uninitiated basic information about the Arabic alphabet, the importance of the Qur’an and the development of proportional scripts. Moving counterclockwise around the room, the viewer is presented with a roughly chronological survey on the development of calligraphy in Islamic contexts, from ninth- to tenth-century Kufic Qur’ans in the case to the left of the entrance to a twenty-first-century diptych to the right. Within this progression are several themed displays, focusing on such ornamented forms of writing as mirror-writing, pseudo-script and floriated or animated scripts as well as on calligrams, which are pictures formed out of words. 

The first vitrine the viewer encounters contains a luxurious Mamluk Qur’an (cat. no.17b; Fig.12). Its large scale, with each page measuring around fifty by thirty-three centimetres, and its thuluth script wrought in gold, adorned with jewel-like red and blue vowel marks and a six-pointed star to indicate prostration, serves as a fitting introduction to the ways writing can do more than facilitate reading. Behind this Qur’an is a monumental bronze sculpture, Poet turning into heech by the Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli (2007; no.40). Standing at over seven feet tall, this consists of a cylinder inscribed with pseudo-script, split at the bottom and half curving up to form he, the first letter of the Persian word ‘heech’ (nothingness). The cylinder stands on two legs that end in a bronze block and a single pole rises from the top, making the cylinder echo the trunk of a human body, transformed into text. 

The juxtaposition of these two objects reflects the central theme of the exhibition: from the emergence of Islam to the present, writing has served as the most important visual form of the Islamic world. The language of the Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the speech of God and the religion’s central miracle. The words and phrases of the Qur’an are imbued with spiritual power and even single letters or other languages written in Arabic script can be seen as potentially apotropaic. Several of the objects displayed served talismanic functions, such as a miniature octagonal Qur’an (seventeenth century; no.25b) or a prayer book (AH 1180/AD 1766; no.35a) full of images made of text, both written in a tiny, scarcely legible script known as ghubar (dust-like). The purpose of these tiny texts is clearly not to be read as much as to invoke God’s protection through the power of His words.  

Not all of the objects on display harness the power of the Qur’an so explicitly. Some, such as two thirteenth-century inlaid bronze vessels (early thirteenth century; cat. fig.44), perhaps used for feasting or drinking, are adorned with human-headed naskh script that is either illegible or repeats well-wishing phrases. The function of these playfully animated words is unknown. Several scholars have questioned whether objects such as these, sometimes destined for activities that were explicitly proscribed by religious scholars, should be called ‘Islamic’. And yet, as Shahab Ahmed and other recent critics have shown, these objects derived their meaning from within the revelatory framework of Islam.(3) And as this exhibition demonstrates, the very use of Arabic script, whether legible or illegible, connects objects to a long Islamic tradition of finding power and beauty in writing.  

In order to highlight continuities in the use of calligraphy across time, the curator, Maryam Ekhtiar, and her team have brought together objects that are usually located in separate galleries. An Ottoman calligraphic galleon by the calligrapher ‘Abd al-Qadir Hisari, (no.37; Fig.13) is mounted alongside Seascape with three boats (twentieth century; cat. fig.54), a painting by the Pakistani artist Sadequain that features boats made out of Arabic phrases in praise of the Qur’an. Although the script is increasingly abstracted, these calligraphic boats are not really a ‘triumph of form over content’, a phrase used in a wall label and the catalogue. In fact, the content of both inscriptions is part of what makes these images powerful. The Ottoman galleon is composed of the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus referred to in the Qur’an, and the tiny inscriptions that make up much of the rest of the image are a combination of Ottoman Turkish poetry, prayers and verses from the Qur’an. As the curators note, the names of the Seven Sleepers were often used on talismans, since they were thought to protect boats against sinking. In these objects, writing is used to create images that amplify the meanings or uses of the text, encouraging the viewer to alternate between looking and reading. 

The exhibition closes with an untitled diptych by the Iranian calligrapher Golnaz Fathi (no.42; Fig.14) that evokes the dense layering of earlier calligraphy practice pages as well as the splatter of Abstract Expressionist painting. Using acrylic, pen and varnish on canvas, the artist layers scribbled lines that mimic writing with increasing density toward a central horizon, surrounded by a painted band of yellow. The vertical line dividing the two parts of the diptych is a thick, black, spattered stripe of acrylic. There is nothing legible here, nor anything that properly can be termed writing. Yet the artist, classically trained as a calligrapher, uses her pen and paintbrush to envision a landscape made meaningful through lines like text, converging upon and defining the edge between heaven and earth. Writing – here no longer connected to linguistic meaning at all – is still the generative force. 

 1 See B. Bedos-Rezak and J. Hamburger: ‘Introduction’, in idem, eds: Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective (300–1600 CE), Washington 2016, pp.1–16.

 2 Catalogue: How to Read Islamic Calligraphy. By Maryam Ekhtiar. 156 pp. incl. 141 col. ills. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018), $25. ISBN 978–1–58839–630–3. The catalogue does not contain all of the objects in the exhibition.

 3 S. Ahmed: What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton 2015.