Deconstructing The Word

In this section words and writing take on another role. Their inclusion in the work of abstract artists of the 1950's and 1960's is a conscious one, with a theoretical base. The first two works, for example, are by the Iraqi artists Madiha Omar and Shakir Hassan al-Said, who are key and pioneer figures of the movement sometimes described as hurufiyyah (after harf, meaning letter; see Introduction). Omar was fascinated by the structure of Arabic letter forms, which she rediscovered: ‘each letter as an abstract image fulfils a specific meaning’, she wrote in her declaration on Arabic calligraphy (Omar 1946). Shakir Hassan al-Said believed that the Arabic script reflected ‘the history of the Arab individual and social reality which remained stored in the intellectual consciousness of culture and society’ (Said 1981; Shabbout 1999: 244). Even figurative Syrian artist Fateh Moudarres suddenly started to insert scratched words into his paintings. The messages are more subliminal. There are works where the words are clear but the meaning is abstract – Tanavoli’s Heech (Nothing), for example. In other pieces, although words and phrases can be discerned, it is the shape of the letter and how it combines with others that is important. Legibility becomes secondary. The Tunisian artist Lassaad Metoui describes himself as an architect of words, Siah Armajani re-creates the rhythms of Persian poetry, and Jacob El-Hanani metamorphoses the repetition of prayers in his orthodox Jewish childhood into intense grids resembling ancient microscript. Khaled Ben Slimane’s repetition of words is an echo of Sufi incantations, and Moshiri is inspired by the calligraphic practice sheets known as mashq. Other artists focus on the magical properties of letters and numbers. There is a wealth of possibilities here that continue to be fully explored by artists throughout the region.