The artist and the alphabet
UNESCO recently declared Arabic calligraphy as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Centuries before, Ibn e Muqla sensed the potential of lettering and invented the Khatt ath tuluth and other important Arabic calligraphy styles. The nature of the Arabic alphabet is rich not only because it forms the basis of the language of the final message, but the richness of its visual form and structure has also been instrumental in its popularity. Spanning a quarter of the globe over the past 1,400 years, as Sheila Blair rightly put it: “Script has emerged as a main theme in the visual culture of the Islamic world.
The inherent potential of Arabic script is explored by various artists around the world and a few locally like Mohammad Ali Talpur, Ghulam Muhammad and Muneeb Ali. I have not used the word calligrapher here because the term artist expresses the level of freedom that each artist is entitled to compared to a qualified calligrapher. This freedom is very well employed by Muneeb in his recent works exhibited at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore. The artist speaks of the transformative power of spoken words when he says “they could create or destroy, they will be all or nothing”, but as the form of letters and words intertwine in his work, he also seems to recognize the transformative power of creative freedom he has as an artist. Diacritics are almost absent and dots are only used where ornamentation is required, so the text need not be legible. Apparently, the expression of work is not destructive and there does not seem to be an intention to break a hegemonic legacy but to celebrate the elegance associated with the language of final revelation.
Almost all contemporary art practices are two-way. One finds an element of deception too specifically in its three-dimensional forms. Muneeb works with the system of letters and words which is akin to the system of languages spoken by millions of people around the world, thus providing a strong link to connect with form. However, having brought the viewer closer, it takes the viewer back to an unfamiliar realm as one is captivated by the swaying and swaying of lines and curves. Sometimes what we hear is very eloquent, but the sense of underlining is not so sophisticated. This points to another pictorial pursuit of the artist and it is the showdown between the verbal and the visual. As if he was trying to visualize what was said. In Muneeb’s sublime journey of exploring the form, the only thing that survives is the final expression neither the letters nor the words.
The tradition of lettering is at the heart of Islamic lands and the beautiful writing has a lot of cultural and religious value. As a result, we find the primacy of writing in the Islamic arts. From this primacy stems the art of calligraphy. The role of this tradition must encompass its entire heritage. Carefully considered letterforms, calligraphic movement and artistic invention combine in Muneeb’s work, generating textual fields that might recall Mark Rothko’s color fields. One immerses oneself in the deliciously overlapping text fields, leaving behind the desire to know what is written. Here one can wonder about the relevance of the term calligrapher or calligrapher to write about such artists and their expressions where expression takes precedence over tradition since the writing does not need to be readable. New terms will be coined as the genre takes new paths.
Muneeb’s understanding of calligraphic art and its wider world comes from his background in typography, design and art. After graduating in Graphic Design from College of Art & Design, University of Punjab, he did his Masters in Fine Arts from National College of Arts Lahore with multiple shows nationally and internationally. While moving away from tradition, Muneeb is certainly a modern scribe who, in contemporary times, could make his expression speak through multiple materials in multiple ways because he is no longer tied to tradition. —-