I’m going to make a confession: I have an obsession with the act of writing by hand. I find putting pen to paper refreshing, pleasurable, and therapeutic. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing—it can be as straightforward as taking notes during a meeting or as personal as recounting the day’s events in my journal. There is something about using combinations of curving and straight lines to create letters, which then become words, that when strung together have a whole range of meanings and emotions tied to them. And to be completely honest, and a little vain, I love my handwriting. I have been told that my handwriting could be its own font, that a page of it looks like something that came out of a printer or typewriter. I feel that my handwriting is this constantly changing thing – depending on the pen or the paper, it always comes out a little differently, but it has this satisfying quality to it so that when I see it on a page, it just makes me happy inside.
For me, written text can be a work of art. I think this is actually a reason I love some of the artists I do. For instance, seeing Cy Twombly’s looping script-like designs in his gray-ground or “blackboard” paintings—not to mention his works that actually incorporate letters and words—gives me the same pleasure that I get from the act of writing. So when preparing for the Nasher Museum’s presentation of the exhibition Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art, I think it was only natural for me to fall in love with calligraphy.
While the most obvious instance of calligraphy in the exhibition is the North African manuscript of devotions from the fifteenth century, calligraphy is visible on many works in the exhibition from a range of places and time periods. You can see the broad strokes and curving loops of writing on a lamp, a tile panel, a door, a tent panel, and other works in the exhibition, including several by contemporary artists. Calligraphy, which means “beautiful writing” in Greek, is one of the main decorative forms used in Islamic art. That is not to say that it exists purely as decoration; it still functions as writing, quoting the Qur’an or sharing some other information with the reader. But as someone who cannot read the words on these works, what I see is the beauty of the script, the time that was put into thinking about writing’s place within a design (or writing as design), and the ability of the writer or artist to convey something beyond the meaning of the words. Mohamed Zakariya’s work “And His throne was on the water” (Qur’an 11.7; pictured above) from 2011 has gold calligraphy on a grayish-blue background. He has transformed the quote into a descending cascade from the top left of the canvas, with an almost tear-like shape to it. The richness of the gold leaf writing on top of the serenely colored ground of the canvas makes clear the importance of the written words: you probably wouldn’t write your grocery list in gold leaf. The whole composition asks the viewer to stop, pay attention, look at the words and think about what they could be communicating. Although the title allows us to “read” the writing on this work, without a background in Islamic religious texts, this can still be an elusive quotation. Zakariya presents this phrase in a truly beautiful way, creating an intriguing work that could lead the viewer to explore what is meant by the words and how that aligns with his composition.
Calligraphy is just one of the many details that you can uncover when viewing the works in this exhibition. Taking that extra bit of time for a closer look reveals a whole world of twisting vines, perching birds, and patterned edges that are well worth the effort. And perhaps one bit of ornamentation will reach out and speak to you, reminding you of a truth about yourself and your experience of art.
Katie Adkins is Assistant Curator at the Nasher Museum and coordinating curator of Doris Duke’s Shangri La: Architecture, Landscape, and Islamic Art.