Remembrance and Gratitude
“Remember Me and I will remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not”.
(Qur'an Sura 2, Verse 152)
“The Arabic script has two states - one is a state of detached letters and the other is the state of joining them into word formation, and the words in turn to form sentences to elucidate ideas and thoughts, which in turn are a testimony on meaningfulness".
This spectacular diptych is a culmination of the work of Ahmed Moustafa over the past three decades. Inspired by the concepts of Remembrance and Gratitude, Moustafa explores these themes on several levels, and the result is one of his most complex and profound works.
The text is the remarkable Qur'anic verse in which man is urged to engage in a reciprocal encounter with God. Both panels contain the whole text of the verse in two contrasting forms that revolve around a common centre; in one case the text is upright and rises from the base of the panel, in the other inverted and as though suspended from above. The panel Remembrance foregrounds the first part of the verse 'Remember Me and I will remember you' in luminous white, whereas Gratitude highlights the second part 'Be grateful unto Me and deny me not' in no less striking fashion. The notion of reciprocity and mutuality expressed in the Qur'anic verse is thus mirrored both in the composition of each panel and in the relationship between them.
Twelve layers are built up to form each composition, masterly employing different techniques for each. Ahmed Moustafa allows elements from earlier phases in his stylistic development to reappear in this work, in conscious recollection of his own journey. The lower levels are reminiscent of his early calligraphic works from the late 1970s and early 1980s, formed from a multitude of individual letters, detached and distant. These represent the raw material from thoughts excavated from distant experience. The intermediate levels show the script becoming firmer, as the letters join to become words and the meaning is elucidated. The raw treatment of colour and multi-layering here recall those of the Qur'anic Polyptych of Nine Panels (1995). At the uppermost levels the script has become almost tangible, treated illusionistically as if a ribbon entwined around itself. The startling whiteness of top layer of script is in sharp contrast to the multiple layers of colours which form the background, representing as it does the universal truth as a colour from which all others emanate. The uppermost levels form the focus of each panel – a pair of identical Qur'anic passages. In each panel one is superimposed on the other, but are subtly handled so that the dominant phrase in the whitest script which rises to the forefront of each is that which occupies the penultimate level of the other. Each of these phrases is shown twice, at the top and at the base of the panel, connecting to each other as if rotating around a central point. There are strong recollections here of the complex compositions of Moustafa's series Where The Two Oceans Meet, with their variations of layered script evoking notions of compatibility and interrelationship. Remembrance and Gratitude goes a stage further; the repeated phrases are no longer treated as exact mirror images, but are handled more playfully, as restless tangible forms which weave around each other. This sense of compatibility, imaginative rather than repetitive, is heightened by the choice of colours which form the basis of the lower layers, complementary yet unmatching.
The Arabic text of the verse comprises only twelve of the 28 Arabic letter shapes, but most of them are repeated, some of them no less than five times. The resulting density of the graphic patterns – strengthened further by the dual repetition of the text in each panel – leads to a plethora of relationships between letter-shapes of similar guise. Reciprocity here fans out into a web of incalculable richness and complexity which is, however, dominated by one oft repeated letter, the grand and angular letter kaf whose interlocking strokes form the centres of both panels. In Remembrance that centre takes the shape of a quadrangular dot around which the entire composition appears to revolve. Evocative of the shape and function of the Kaaba, the central dot is visible also in Gratitude, but here it is dimmed and flanked by two different mutually reflective centres, also shaped as dots and generated by interlocking strokes of kaf. The three central points echo the three imperatives of the verse: 'remember' as fore-grounded in one panel, 'be grateful' and 'deny not' as fore-grounded in the other.
The reason for the dominant function which the letter shape of kaf assumes in both panelsis likewise rooted in the text of the verse. The letter forms part of the Arabic words which convey its key concepts: 'remembrance', 'gratitude', 'denial' as well as, notably, the pronoun 'You' which addresses Mankind. The visual rendering of the verse in the panels is thus a highly effective reflection of its linguistic fabric, its sound and its syntax. Language here is made truly palpable to the eye.
The Qur'anic verse enshrines in singular fashion the perennial challenge of man's spiritual encounter with the divine. In its archetypal form that meeting is said to have taken place at the beginning of time when, as another Qur'anic verse tell us, the Creator faced the assembled souls with the words 'Am I not your Lord?', whereupon they affirmed their allegiance to Him. The aim of 'Remembrance' lies in seeking to recapture the lost memory of that experience, to excavate it from the deepest layers of the soul. This is a life-long process which demands ceaseless renewal because whatever is, in one blessed moment, salvaged and recaptured, disintegrates and falls prey to weakness, disregard and forgetfulness the next. The dynamic power of Moustafa's panels conveys both the pain of this unending struggle and the glory of the promise it holds. The former is evoked in the flaking and rust coloured debris of letters in the background as memory is sapped by rack and ruin, while the latter shines out in the blazing white of the verses in the foreground as memory is recaptured and revived. The life force released by this supreme moment is embodied in the plasticity and pliancy of letter shapes engaged in vigorous but harmonious and balanced motion.
Such revival is, however, not simply the fruit of man's own effort but rather comes to him as a divinely bestowed gift; hence the need for every moment of 'remembrance' to be, simultaneously, also a moment of 'gratitude'. The gift is conveyed to man in many guises, but most notably in the text the Qur'an which describes itself quite literally as a 'remembrance for Mankind'. Reciting its verses and meditating upon them is thus in itself an act of remembrance. Similarly, any work of art it has inspired aims at nothing less than rekindling such remembrance, such recollection of an archetypal mutual encounter. Herein lies the principal aesthetic endeavour of Islamic art. Moustafa's diptych emanates from the very core of this tradition.
Based on interviews with Dr Ahmed Moustafa by
Dr Stefan Sperl and William Lawrie, September 2009