Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Art and Artistry of Calligraphy
How did we get here?
How did the tools necessary for primitive humans to communicate with each other to survive, turn into one of the most beautiful art forms practiced by almost every culture known to man? Initially communication consisted of grunts and hand gestures. Next, pictograms were scratched onto rocks, onto desert floors or cave walls, sharing information to the next passing group about the type and abundance of game in the area. Over millennia grunts turned into language and stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation; sometimes beating on tightly stretched animal skins or chanting was added to the telling. This process took many thousands of years and continued to increase in clarity and creativity.
At some point before recorded time, an enterprising person pressed lines into wet clay that conveyed easily understood information and formed the clay into small cakes that, once baked to harden, could be carried and exchanged. And slowly, slowly, the process inched forward until, during the advance in civilization that occurred during an extended period of time, in the Shang Dynasty that ruled China (10,468 BCE to about 1,600 BCE) a clever scribe/artist began to use brushes to communicate visually and artistically. It became so fashionable to dance with brushes dipped in dark liquid and swirled onto paper, that during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 8 CE) educated men and even high-ranking women were encouraged to practice this form of conversational writing.
The word Calligraphy means beautiful writing and comes from the Greek words ”Kallos” for beauty and “Graphi” writing. Beautiful writing was practiced by many early cultures world-wide and is still considered an art form in Asian countries much more than a form of communication.
Conversely, early Arabic writing that was universally accepted was called Kufic, from the city of Kufah in Iraq where it had been developed in the 7th century… but it was a written form of communication neither precise nor beautiful. When Islam exploded on the scene, the need to spread the word of God directly quoted from the Koran, made mathematical precision and precise beautiful flowing forms a necessity. The rules and principles of calligraphy were established in the 10th century by Abu Ali Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Muqla, commonly known as Ibn Muqla, a Visier in the Abbasid Caliphate of Persia. His theory of proportion is known as the “rhomboid dot” and establishes the exact length of the alif stroke with which all letters in a particular script are measured. The golden age of calligraphy had now arrived throughout the ancient Middle East, first because it unified the Arabic language and secondly because of its visual expression of the written word.
So when the opportunity presented itself to take a calligraphy class during my recent visit to Casablanca I jumped at the chance to understand this omnipresent art form. The calligraphy classes are offered on the third floor of The Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation Museum in what was once a privately owned home in Casablanca’s upscale historic district. The eponymous named museum holds the eclectic collection of art works by Mohammed Ben Ali R’bati, a well-known Moroccan figurative painter from the early 20th century; ancient perfume flasks of exquisite beauty; an extensive collection of rare Bohemia crystal objects d’art; stunning 18th and 19th century gold jewelry made by Jewish Master craftsman; and Amizigh (Berber)silver wedding jewelry.
Berber women were considered keepers of the culture and communicators of knowledge and as such were heavily adorned with silver jewelry often studded with semi-precious stones laid out in intricate designs that indicated status and tribal affiliation. To them silver was associated with the moon and purity and the feminine mystique. The tribal jewelry often has spiritual and healing components known only to the craftspeople that created them and the women for whom they were created.
The wedding jewelry is a special set of forehead covering or tiara, hanging earrings, multi-level necklace and frontal brooch (attached to the bodice). It is usually owned by an entire extended family and passed down through the generations. The most important piece of the set would be the “Khamsa” or hand of Fatima, a symbol of protection against the evil eye for both the Arab and Jewish people. If the family does not own its own bride set, a bride will borrow or rent one for her wedding as it has special traditional and spiritual significance and must be worn during a wedding ceremony.
In addition to these rare and beautiful objects, the museum has the largest collection of antique travel posters by the greatest poster artists such as Majorelle, Dinet and de la Neziere, names revered in the industry. This collection represents the Golden Age of the Orientalist poster painting which was an early manner of promotion and advertisement for selling travel to exotic destinations. Available for sale are individual copies of the poster collection as well as a coffee table book containing the entire history beautifully illustrated.
Guiding us through this impressive and exotic collection of art objects was calligraphy artist and museum guide extraordinaire, Med Amine (call me “Med”) Serhane. After exploring the two floors of the collection, we reached the top floor where classes were held. The bright Moroccan afternoon light poured in through the open rooftop making this a perfect venue for creating art.
I took a seat at a long table while Med placed in front of me a small pot of ink and a sharpened-to-a-point bamboo fond. A stack of pure white glossy paper was placed periodically along the table. Calligraphy ink is made out of the burnt wood resulting from burning the edges of the bamboo to form a flat surface and a sharp point, both required for shaping the flowing symbols. To keep the liquid flowing, thin strands of silk are added. The point of the pen is dipped into the liquid to catch a sufficient amount of ink to work a line without stopping but not so much that it drips. The pen is held at a 45% angle and allowed to flow over the paper gently, maneuvering hand positions to keep the line flowing without breaks, point to flat and back again as the swirl is painted. My effort is above, Med’s is below.
Med had incredible patience as each member at the table giggled and wiggled through their first efforts. He is a very generous teacher and when he felt we had settled down to undertake a serious attempt, he took a pencil to a clean piece of paper and drew each person’s name so they could follow the line. By this time we were all seriously trying our best to write our name as Med had outlined and when we had all done the best we could do he took clean paper and for each of us painted our names quickly, without a moment’s hesitation and in perfect form.
His patience paid off for in only one lesson he had helped each of us make a credible effort and take our first steps in the Art and Artistry of Calligraphy.
For further information: www.musee-as.ma
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