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Scripts which dazzle mind and eye | By Patricia Morison
FINANCIAL TIMES | ARTS | Tuesday, 7th August 1990

Scripts which dazzle mind and eye

To 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, Xenel Industries.

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 paper collages.

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 calligraphy.

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 for centuries.

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 Arabic calligraphy.

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.

 


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