which dazzle mind and eye | By Patricia Morison
TIMES | ARTS | Tuesday, 7th August 1990
which dazzle mind and eye
Moslems, Arabic calligraphy is a sacred art, for in this God spoke
to the Prophet. To a westerner, calligraphy is the pleasing red
and black arabesques that float over the inner surfaces of Ottoman
mosques, often not recognised as script at all. The Artistry of
Arabic Script by Ahmed Moustafa, at the Royal College of Art, Kensington
Gore, London W8 (Monday to Saturday, until October 6) introduces
us to a novel use of Arabic calligraphy, one which certainly dazzles
the eye and, you may well find, captivates the mind.
Ahmed Moustafa is a painter who is also a master calligrapher, trained
in an exacting tradition which goes back over a thousand years.
He has also studied in the west and his work shows the influence
of modern European painting, in particular Picasso, Matisse, and
de Chirico. The exhibition is sponsored by the Saudi Arabian conglomerate,
Born in Alexandria in 1943, Ahmed Moustafa is one of Egypt's foremost
artists. He enjoys princely patronage, like the most honoured Moslem
calligraphers of old - with the difference that they laboured to
furnish royal libraries and mosques with exquisite texts, and he
is commissioned to provide stained glass and tapestries for yachts
and VIP jets.
If you associate Arabic calligraphy principally with delicate feats
of penmanship you will be considerably surprised and perhaps rather
taken aback by the dramatic impact of Ahmed Moustafa's work. Seen
within the cool white spaces of the Henry Moore Gallery, these dynamic
paintings, prints and tapestries have a declamatory quality. They
demand space, and yet the kind of visual labyrinth set up in almost
every case requires close attention. Where is there text, and where
is it taking us?
In "Landscape of the House of God," a watercolour background
blends blue-black shades of night with the pink of dawn. Across
there runs an interlacing script, making a trellis of turquoise.
On top of this, severely geometric Kufic text - used in the earliest
Korans written on vellum - is inscribed in such a way that it apparently
forms a cube. Within the cube, the turquoise script mingles and
turns to gold, a transmutation perhaps to be seen as symbolic, for
the cube stands for the Ka'ba, the Holy of Holies at Mecca.
Even someone unable to read a word of Arabic, regrettably the case
with your reviewer, can recognise such a painting as a statement
about the divine power and perfection of the text. However, the
representational element of many of the works offers a path to draw
in a western audience.
In the case of the illustrations of birds and animals, Ahmed Moustafa's
representational work looks back to tradition, for in the 9th century,
potters in Iran incised zoomorphic images, stylised and splendidly
vigorous, on their wares. Ahmed Moustafa takes classical Arabic
poetry in praise of the stallion, camel and hawk, and illustrates
them. Swirling arabesques of script make the beasts' bodies, their
flying manes, their beating pinions. They are clever but on this
large scale, I found them rather crude. More interesting was "The
Musicians," in which a medieval poem about musicians in an
Andalucian garden is illustrated by a large, boldly coloured grouping
of seated figures which have the simplicity of one of Matisse's
Naturally, the artist uses non-figural imagery in his illustrations
of the Koran, and the non-Moslem or non-Arabist is not able to decipher
the relationship between the meaning and the text-image. But Moustafa
wants to include a western audience, and so hunts for images laden
with mystical associations which can cross the religious divide.
Light is one such image. In "God is the Light of Heaven and
Earth," a beautiful Surah which compares God to the light of
an oil-lamp is interpreted as a window. This is suggested by rectangular
bands of texts, which float in a steeply receding perspective which
ultimately, far away, gives onto a sky of azure and drifting clouds.
In "The Eternal Landscape," text is inscribed as if it
were graffiti on nearly solid slabs of colour which rep resent the
walls and path of a town. The path invites, it turns away from our
gaze, under a blazing blue heaven of compact Kufic script.
The geometric skill and intellectual rigour of these paintings is
something quite formidable, although I found myself drawn more to
the purely abstract designs. In "The Invisible Warriors of
Badr" there is a magnificent flaunting vigour of the primary
text, which appears to turn and twist up from the canvas like an
eddy of desert wind. Closer, you see yet again that this is a palimpsest,
script upon script, in pastel colours and opulent with gold thread.
Sometimes, Ahmed Moustafa takes one single letter and makes a design
which holds the attention by the sheer abstract beauty of Arabic
In the exhibition is a glass showcase holding a book, with no explanation.
In fact, it is a copy of Ahmed Moustafa's recently awarded London
doctoral dissertation, the result of 14 years of research at the
Central School of Art and Design. In his research, Ahmed Moustafa
has made a real discovery through which, the artist says, "the
doctrine of the entire field of penmanship is now revealed. Most
of what has been written about Islamic art is without foundations
and will have to be entirely reassessed."
Here, as far as I understand it, is the artist-scholar's discovery.
In 10th-century Baghdad a brilliant vizier called Ibn Muqlah set
himself to systematise and perfect Arabic script. He wrote a treatise
on "proportional script" in which he drew heavily on Pythagoras's
theory of the harmony of the spheres, known thanks to copies and
translations of his work made by Arab scholars. The vizier was deliberately
obscure in his book, taking the view that it was not something to
be perused on a mere whim, and so his work was justly neglected
Ahmed Moustafa managed to penetrate the abstrusities of the Ibn
Muqlah's book, driven by the desire to discover why Arabic letter-shapes
have the proportions and occupy the spaces that they do. Starting
from the alif, first letter of the alphabet, he drew up a complex
geometric grid which he believed was the only possible realisation
of the vizier's theory. So far, so good; but there was no confirmation
that the grid was really the basis for classical Arabic.
Then, in the vast archives of the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, he
made the chance discovery of a 16th-century Ottoman manuscript copied
directly from a work by one of the vizier's students, the famous
Ibn al-Bawwab. To Ahmed Moustafa's joy, the letters, dots and spaces
fitted onto his grid perfectly and reassured him that his is the
discovery of the "absolutely rational basis" underlying
I find all this tantalising and intriguing, if mysterious - surely
here is matter for a late-night Channel 4 documentary? Meanwhile,
The Artistry of Arabic Script offers a cool, cerebral pleasure which
makes a visit to Kensington Gore a must.