Basharat Bashir

Calligraphy andCalligraffiti

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Calligraphy is the art of lettering in the languages which use Arabic alphabet or the alphabets derived from it. It includes Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and Urdu calligraphy. It is known in Arabic as ‘KhattArabi’ which translates into Arabic line, design, or construction. Islamic Calligraphy is mostly based on verses and chapters of Islamic Holy book and its development is strongly knotted to the it. Traditionally Islam does not encourage the use of pictures and hence instead of pictures artists adopted to letters and it became an ideal source of expression in Islamic art. Apart from calligraphy Islamic artexploreddecorative patterns and designs with minimal use of figures and pictures. In Islamic art calligraphy gained a unique reputation and it was even considered as a moral good. An ancient Arabic proverb illustrates this point by emphatically stating that “Purity of writing is purity of the soul.”

Islamic calligraphy, on the other hand, is not limited to strictly religious subjects, objects, or spaces. Calligraphy, like all Islamic art, includes a diverse range of works created in a variety of contexts. The popularity of calligraphy in Islamic art is not due to its non-figural tradition; rather, it reflects the importance of writing and written text in Islam.  And in Islamic tradition it is believed that the pen was the first thing God created.

Islamic calligraphy developed from two major styles: Kufic and Naskh. There are several variations of each, as well as regionally specific styles. Arabic or Persian calligraphy has also been incorporated into modern art, beginning with the post-colonial period in the Middle East, as well as the more recent style of calligraffiti.

Calligraffiti on the other hand developed with the emergence of the abstract movement in the Middle East during the 20th century. The traditional Islamic Calligraphy was impacted which led to the introduction of the Hurufiyya movement in the Arab world and the SaqqaKhaneh movement in Iran. Although influenced by early Islamic script styles like Siyahmashq and Kufic,Calligraffiti does not require to follow the rules of any particular style. The introduction of abstraction in calligraphy was initially pioneered by artists including Hassan Massoudy, Hossein Zenderoudi and ParvizTanavoli.

In recent years and in the wake of Arab uprisings Calligraffiti emerged as a strong means of expression in the Middle East. While graffiti has never been widespread in the region, Calligraffiti proved to be earnest form of protest that was a blend of tradition and modern. Arabic calligraphy and graffiti are interrelated, and the greatest calligrapher Hassan Massoudy, who influenced a generation of calligraffiti artists, referred to them as “two daughters of the same parents.” “Obviously, both are about the use of letters and their alphabets, and their focal point is the beauty of writing. For both, a letter is more than just a letter; it evokes feelings in them. Another thing they have in common is the use of white space and composition within it. The two art forms coexisting in the same area naturally evolved into calligraffiti.Artist and activist Janet Kozak, characterizes calligraffiti artists in the Middle East as being “not bound by the shackles of tradition, yet still indebted to it”, as they use “a unique blend of traditional scripts and design mixed with modern materials and techniques”.

The traditional instrument of the Islamic calligrapher is the kalam, a pen normally made of dried reed or bamboo. The ink is often in colour and chosen so that its intensity can vary greatly, creating dynamism and movement in the letter forms. Some styles are often written using a metallic-tip pen.For centuries, the art of writing has fulfilled a central iconographic function in Islamic art. Although the academic tradition of Islamic calligraphy began in Baghdad, the centre of the Islamic empire during much of its early history, it eventually spread as far as India and Spain.

As Islamic calligraphy is highly venerated, most works follow examples set by well-established calligraphers. In the Islamic tradition, calligraphers undergo extensive training in three stages, including the study of their teacher’s models, in order to be granted certification.

Calligraffiti is not bound to a particular instrument. Calligraffiti artists use brushes, graffiti cans or any other tool on any surface. Calligraffiti like graffiti is not necessarily supposed to remain permanent. It does not follow any specific rules and unlike calligraphy where artist spends years to master the technique calligraffiti artists do not go through such training. Most Calligraffiti artists, like El Seed, do not consider themselves calligraphers because they do not know, nor do they follow the many rules of calligraphy. Calligraffiti on the other hand is characterized by its diversity of mediums, methods, and instruments. Each individual artist uses and sometimes designs his or her own tools.

Apart from method and material the purpose is another difference that separates calligraphy from calligraffiti. Calligraphy served as a medium to preserve and propagate the words of Islam. its initial aim was to celebrate and spread words and verses of the Holy Book.In Islamic art calligraphy is considered high art and its reputation has always been revered. It is both religious appreciation as well as decoration with almost no political aim. Calligraffiti on the other hand developed to check socio-political issues. And it has been a way for artists in the Middle East to reclaim the region while still staying grounded in their culture and tradition. Its purpose is to publish public opinions on the walls with or without any legal consent. Calligraffiti is a mechanism of socio-political protest adopted by artists from Beirut, to the Palestinian intifadas, to the Arab uprisings. One of the most salient characteristics of the Arab Spring has been the reappropriation of the public sphere and calligraffiti does just that. Calligraffiti along with Graffiti has now become a regular tool for artists to assert political and social tensions and once an infrequent sight, Calligraffiti now adorn the walls of most major cities in the Middle East.

Many calligraffiti artists across middle east disagree with the idea that their art is political. One of the calligraffiti artist Askar insists his calligraffiti pieces in Palestine do not make him a political activist, he says “I protest in colors, my activism consists of bringing art to the streets and allowing the public to express themselves”; similarly, El Seed has said “I don’t have any political agenda. I don’t believe in politics”. But by nature, calligraffiti is meant to express a message, and so it has unavoidable social and political consequences.

Most of the contemporary graffiti has been a meansof political protest, and calligraffiti hasn’t escaped this trend. A significant portion of the anonymous calligraffiti that resulted from the Arab Spring is intricately entwined with a political conflict. It is impossible to separate the political context in which El Seed’s 2011 mural in Kairouan, Tunisia, which depicts a poem by Abu al-Qasim al-Husayafi about oppression and injustice, was created. Like this, Askar’s piece, “Palestine,” cannot be divorced from the political significance that the word “Palestine” carries. Likewise, his piece, “salaam,” which is shaped like a key and says “peace,” cannot be divorced from the significance of the key in the Palestinian occupation. Because of its setting, anonymous calligraffiti on the Israeli wall in Bethlehem is necessarily political.

Calligraffiti was a result of blending of calligraphy and western abstraction but calligraffiti as it went on it greatly influenced artists all over the world and inspired many western artists. Arabic calligraffiti by non-Middle Eastern artists has increased outside of the Middle East. Arabic calligraphy has developed into a global art form. This can be partly attributed to Arabic calligraphy’s richness when compared to other scripts. Many artists who want to reinvent the aesthetic have chosen to use Arabic calligraphy as a typographic choice.


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