To most westerners, Arabic script is familiar only from media images: as a threatening, cryptic tangle on the bandannas of suicide bombers, on banners carried through the streets of Gaza or Basra, or in the rolling captions on al-Jazeera news clips. Yet the history of the written Arabic word is, in reality, a volatile 1,500-year-old blend of religion, magic, politics and art. Today, artists working with Arabic are just as likely to use InDesign or a spray can as the calligrapher’s pen of 24 neatly cut donkey hairs, but they draw on the same complex tradition. “Word Into Art”, based on the British Museum’s rarely seen contemporary Middle Eastern collection, traces the way in which artists interact with this legacy.
“It’s an immense story to tell,” says Venetia Porter, curator of the exhibition, as she leads me into a gallery half-hung with calligraphy. “But we’ve tried to begin at the beginning.” As “Word Into Art” emphasises, written Arabic originated as a sacred vehicle for religion. According to the Koran, the Archangel Jibreel delivered the first revelation to Muhammad with the command to recite: “In the name of thy Lord . . . who by the pen taught man what he did not know.” When the reluctant (and illiterate) Prophet eventually complied, generations of scribes and calligraphers devised increasingly elaborate scripts in which to copy his words. Constrained by the Islamic taboo on representation, they created a sophisticated art of the word governed by precise rules.
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