Kufic, one of the great traditional styles of
Arabic script, is formal, angular and dignified. But when it is
traced on vellum in translucent sepia ink, it acquires a mysterious
sensuousness, while losing none of its majesty.
Over the ages, Arab-Muslim calligraphy gained
in subtlety and beauty from its encounters with many different cultures.
Although the underlying geometry did not disappear, curved script
finally prevailed and the letters became distended, arched or rounded.
Some letters branched out so much that they transformed the walls
on which they were inscribed into gardens of delight through which
the eye was led along a voluptuous path between down-strokes and
upstrokes. Other letters were adorned with decorative motifs that
counterbalanced empty surfaces. Where strict geometry prevailed,
colours such as the warm blue or turquoise of ancient ceramics that
still enchant us today were used to soften excessive rigour. The
quest for beauty was centered entirely on the word, because figurative
imagery was disallowed.
Working on wood, leather and bone, and later on
parchment, stone, glazed brick and other surfaces, generations of
calligraphers enriched their art and transmitted their skills orally
to apprentices who respected the old traditions.
How do things stand today? Aesthetic values are
not immutable. Just as attitudes to time and distance have changed
beyond measure - think of the abyss that separates the cities and
caravans of Antiquity from our age of interplanetary exploration
- so the scope of creativity has expanded. Sign and image have been
reunited, but in an anarchic proliferation which must be mastered,
just as techniques for using the new, synthetic colours must be
In these conditions, how can modern calligraphers
express themselves and remain faithful to the lights of inner truth
and profound experience that guide them, and without forgetting
the tradition they have inherited ? How can they renew their art
without betraying it? It seems to me that they must do two things.
The first concerns the content of the phrases they wish to transcribe.
The second concerns their choice of instruments. Content and form
Traditionally the Arab calligrapher bas always
worked with a calamus, a trimmed reed pen no thicker than a finger.
For large-scale inscriptions such as those intended for the decoration
of panels or walls, the outline of the letters must first be traced
and then filled in with colour, using a brush. If broader instruments
are used, either on their own or with the calamus, the ancient signs
can be given a new lease of life.
I make my own calligrapher's tools from wood,
cardboard and other materials. I also use brushes. The signs I trace
with these instruments are still recognisable for what they are,
but their appearance is profoundly modified. As a Chinese calligrapher
once put it : When the idea is at the
tip of the brush, there's no need to look any further.
Calligraphy is an art form governed by strict
rules, and the time it takes to transcribe a line onto an empty
page is no exception. Traditionally calligraphers had neither the
freedom nor the technical means to dawdle or to hurry. Today I write
ten times faster than I once did. My hand moves rapidly across the
page, tracing simultaneously the outline of the words and the shape
of the composition. Not only my hand but also my whole body is engaged
in this act that unlocks a treasure house of patiently acquired
skills. To write quickly a calligrapher must have absolute control
over movement and breathing alike.
Colours are prepared just before one starts to
write. Pigments and binding agents are blended with varying degrees
of thickness. Colour should be elegant, flow with perfect ease and
illuminate the act of writing. Its translucence reflects a smooth,
sensual world that radiates calm and serenity. To achieve such control,
the substances from which the colour is made must be tamed.
When the relation between form and colour is harmonious,
calligraphy is a joy to behold. As for the act of composition, it
is a mirror of my feeling as I write. Form, whether extroverted
or introverted, is always linked to a moment of experience from
which it derives intensity. I believe that beauty can originate
from this match between what I write and what I am.
At the heart of the composition throbs an autonomous
world, a field of energy subjected to the rhythm that I impose on
the movement of the letters. Sometimes the strokes are traced upward,
as if they are about to take flight ; at other moments they settle
demurely, as if at test.
If the form is as it should be, if the strokes
flow confidently, then the artist is content. Calligraphy becomes
a language of the body, explaining what surges inexplicably from
deep within the writer-childhood memories or more recent experiences.
These dream-images are marshalled into shape, they unfold as the
leaves unfurl when the seed becomes a tree. The calligrapher must
guide and direct these sparks of life. The image of sap rising from
branch to branch comes to mind, and that of a group of dancers obeying
a choreographer's command I should like to be the choreographer
of my letters and make them dance across the white page. I translate
what I feel into gestures, and suddenly my reverie is visible. But
how much patient groundwork bas to be done! How much concentration
is needed to capture this impulse in full flight!
I elongate some letters and compress others ;
I soften verticals and flatten curves. When my letters take flight,
I fly with them too. When they come back to earth, so do I. Sometimes
chance lends a hand, helping me delve more deeply into my intuitions.
In calligraphy, beauty is not always necessarily triumphant or voluptuous.
It can also result from conflict or drama. For balance to be restored,
the calligrapher must work with great precision. Then beauty becomes
a help in troubled times. In creative moments, everything is illuminated,
everything becomes calligraphy : nature, humanity, even the industrial
Form derives its energy from the place accorded
to it in space. Words, in Arabic, are written horizontally - but
I give them verticality and, at the summit of the constructions
that result, I draw the letters together to enhance the monumental
quality of the composition.
In the past calligraphers wished only to reveal
the sublime, and even the slightest hint of inner conflict was excluded
from their work. Today I can express whatever I wish, but with a
liberty that is mature, a desire that is tempered by a grain of
wisdom. The apprenticeship is long, and the exercise is perilous.
But in the end calligraphy always rewards the patient and devoted
The artist to whom calligraphy yields its secrets
experiences a sense of exaltation comparable to that felt by dancers
who whirl until they are exhausted. All the storms that trouble
the heart are transformed into simple and pure gestures. Vaster
than the language in which it is written, the calligrapher's work
resembles the natural sculptures that stand out against the desert
sky and lead the eye towards infinity.