Artist and the alphabet

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UNESCO lately has declared Arabic calligraphy as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Centuries before, Ibn e Muqla felt potential in lettering and invented Khatt ath tuluth and other significant Arabic calligraphy styles. The nature of Arabic alphabet is rich not only because it forms the basis of the language of the final message but the wealth of its visual form and structure has also played a seminal part in its popularity. Spreading over one quarter of the globe during the past 1,400 years, as Sheila Blair rightfully said: “The script has appeared as a main theme of visual culture of the Islamic world.”

The inherent potential of the Arabic script is explored by various artists across the globe and quite a few locally like Mohammad Ali Talpur, Ghulam Muhammad and Muneeb Ali. I have not used the word calligrapher here as the term artist expresses the level of freedom that every artist is entitled to if compared to a skilled penman. That freedom is very well employed by Muneeb in his recent works displayed at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore. The artist talks about the transformative power of the spoken words when he says ‘they could create or destroy, they will be all or none’ however as the form of letters and words gets interlaced in his work, he also seems to be acknowledging the transformative power of the creative freedom he as an artist has. The diacritical marks are almost absent and the dots are used only when the ornamentation is required hence the text doesn’t need to be legible. Apparently the working expression isn’t destructive and there seems no intention of breaking any hegemonic legacy but to celebrate the elegance that is associated with the language of the final revelation.

Almost all contemporary art practices carry double-hearing. One finds an element of deception too specifically in his three dimensional forms. Muneeb is working with the system of letters and words that is akin to the system of languages ​​spoken by millions across the world hence providing a strong link to connect with the form. However, after drawing the viewer closer, he puts the viewer back into a realm of unknown as one gets captivated by the sway and swing of the lines and curves. At times what we hear is very eloquent yet the underline meaning is not that sophisticated. This points towards another pictorial pursuit of the artist and that is the tug of war between the verbal and the visual. As if he has tried to visualize what has been said. In Muneeb’s sublime journey of exploring form the only thing that survives is the final expression neither letters nor the words.

Lettering tradition is central to Islamic lands and writing beautifully has a lot of cultural and religious value. As a result, one finds primacy of the written word in the Islamic arts. Out of that primacy the art of calligraphy stems out. The role of this tradition must encompass the entirety of its legacy. Carefully studied letter shapes, calligraphic movement and artistic invention all combine in Muneeb’s work generating textual fields that could remind one of Mark Rothko’s color fields. One gets immersed into the exquisitely overlapping fields of text leaving behind the desire to know what is written. Here one can question the suitability of the term calligrapher or calligraphy to write about such artists and their expressions where the expression is taking charge over the tradition as the written word doesn’t require to be legible. New terms shall be invented as the genre takes new routes.

Muneeb’s understanding of the calligraphic art and its whole wide world comes from his background of typography, design and art. After graduating in Graphic Design from the College of Art & Design, University of the Punjab he did his Masters in Visual arts from the National College of Arts Lahore having multiple shows at national and international level. While moving away from the tradition Muneeb certainly is a modern scribe who in contemporary times could have his expression speak through multiple materials in multiple ways as he is no longer tied to the tradition. —-

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