Wonders of Islamic calligraphy on display at Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia


A visitor takes a photo of Jordan-born contemporary artist Nassar Mansour’s 'Huwa II' work (cast bronze, 2017) at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. This sculpture composes a stylistic calligraphy of the word ‘huwa’ which means ‘He’. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

If you need a “crash course” exhibition on calligraphy, look no further than Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s (IAMM) show An Introduction To Islamic Calligraphy.

The exhibition, featuring a total of 103 artefacts and contemporary paintings from the 7th to 21st century, offers a closer look at one of the most important historical and cultural developments of the Islamic world – calligraphy.

The exhibition, which is running at IAMM’s Special Gallery 2, is also an expansion of a 2016 exhibition shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which was called Beyond Words: The Calligraphic Tradition Of Asia. IAMM had a special section in that exhibition, dedicated to nearly 40 artefacts.

Apart from calligraphy's religious usage, this IAMM show in KL examines the evolution of calligraphy in the areas of art, design and craft.

From intricately designed plates, jewellery and calligraphic stationary to stunning contemporary artworks, the exhibits are a reflection of the growth of Islamic calligraphy from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to South-East Asia and China in the east.

An exhibit featuring calligraphic stationery - pen case (Qalamdan) and scribe’s tools from Qajar Persia circa 1713-14 AD. The pen case has an attached inkwell, and comes with other tools such as reed pens, spatula, pen rest and scissors. Photo: The Star/Azman GhaniAn exhibit featuring calligraphic stationery - pen case (Qalamdan) and scribe’s tools from Qajar Persia circa 1713-14 AD. The pen case has an attached inkwell, and comes with other tools such as reed pens, spatula, pen rest and scissors. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

“This exhibition serves as an introduction to visitors of the Islamic world at large and also the various script styles that exist in Islamic calligraphy.

“This way, people would have a better understanding of Islamic history and art before they visit the other galleries here in the museum. This is an educational platform of sorts, ” says curator Siti Marina during a recent interview at the museum.

“People may look at this plate and think it is just a matter of design but it is actually the Kufic script style, ” she adds, referring to an Iranian dish from the 10th century which contains rigid and angular strokes on its circumference, typical of Kufic, the oldest of the Arabic script form.

In covering more than a thousand years, the exhibition is comprehensive as it is insightful. Through the various exhibits, ranging from manuscripts, metal works, ceramics, textiles and other works of art, major calligraphy styles such as Kufic, Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Tawqi, Riqa’, Nasta’liq, Diwani, and Maghribi are highlighted here.

This at once showcases the beauty and complexity of Islamic calligraphy styles, which were developed over the years by prominent exponents and used in works of art.

A turquoise and gold necklace (early 13th century) from Qajar, Persia. The inscriptions are written in Nasta’liq script. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinA turquoise and gold necklace (early 13th century) from Qajar, Persia. The inscriptions are written in Nasta’liq script. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

“In that sense, this exhibition is like a mini museum. It’s a good synopsis of the Islamic world and represents the different cultures and influences, spanning across regions, ” says Dalia Mohamad, an Arabic researcher at the museum.

In this show, visitors will learn that the foundation of Islamic calligraphy was laid down by three great calligraphers: Ibn Muqla of the Abbasid courts, Ibn al-Bawwab and Yakut al-Musta’simi.

Their great traditions produced more outstanding calligraphers such as Ahmad al-Nayrizi, a Persian who worked at the royal atelier of Sultan Husayn during the Safavid dynasty in the late 17th century. One of his masterpieces, an album consisting of 30 du’a (prayers), is on display in this exhibition.

However, Siti was quick to point out that Islamic calligraphy is not used for religious purposes alone. Besides engraving Quranic verses, the calligraphic scripts were also used to write poetry and people’s names. In some cases, the calligrapher may not even be Muslim.

Maryam Ghanbarian's 'Untitled' painting (acrylic on canvas, 2012). Photo: IAMMMaryam Ghanbarian's 'Untitled' painting (acrylic on canvas, 2012). Photo: IAMM

In keeping things accessible, the exhibition is divided into four sections – Contemporary Calligraphy, The Word of God, Beauty In Diversity and The Art Of Calligraphy.

The oldest exhibit on display is a silver coin from Syria that dates back to 698 AD. The coin is in fact from the Umayyad dynasty during the reign of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. Another masterpiece is the Sitarah, a curtain which was commissioned by the Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdul Majid as a gift for the Prophet’s tomb in Medina. The Sitarah dates back to the mid 19th century.

A 10th century scroll from Turkey offers up a calligraphic work of art. The scroll, which opens up to about 6.5m, contains religious verses composed in floriated Kufic script, which is enhanced with elaborate, knotted letters.

The Canton Familie Rose Dish dates back to 1879 in China. The central medallion bears the name and title of Prince Masoud in Nasta’liq script. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani The Canton Familie Rose Dish dates back to 1879 in China. The central medallion bears the name and title of Prince Masoud in Nasta’liq script. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

On the local front, a large chest from Terengganu that dates back to mid 19th century might draw interest.

The top and sides of this storage chest are adorned with calligraphic cartouches. The inscription contains Quranic verses, names of the four caliphs and the proclamation of faith in regional Malay script.

“What’s interesting about the inscriptions is that it is engraved left to right as opposed to right to left. What that suggests is that he (the engraver) may not have been Arabic or Muslim although he practices Islamic calligraphy, ” points out Dalia.

There is also a research publication, called Introduction To Islamic Arts – Calligraphy: The Collection Of The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, available for purchase, providing an in-depth look into Islamic calligraphy.

An Introduction To Islamic Calligraphy is on at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur till April 30. Opening hours: 9.30am to 6pm. Museum admission: RM14 and RM7 (concession). More details: www.iamm.org.my.

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