While Asian and European calligraphy is of greater antiquity, Islamic calligraphy has been used more extensively over the past fourteen centuries. Arabic letters have a natural potential for transformation into beautiful ornamental forms, and the ways in which Arabic calligraphy is used continue to be astonishingly varied and imaginative.
Calligraphy means 'beautiful writing' and was originally applied only in sacred contexts, but contemporary use encompasses the decoration of both religious and civic buildings, as well as adornment of aesthetic objects. Artists have gone beyond the use of calligraphy as decorative writing and have fashioned it into innovative forms of fine art in painting and sculpture.
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The inherent musicality of calligraphy in its cursive scripts is well suited to the dynamics of painting and has inspired artists to shape and reshape letters as creative elements in rhythmic compositions. In the Sultanate, the art of calligraphy is practiced by a comparatively small, but dedicated number of artists.
Sami Al Gawi & Saleh Al Shukairi
Two of the country's leading calligraphic artists, Sami Al Ghawi and Saleh Al Shukairi, held a joint exhibition, each displaying fifteen artworks at the Omani Society for Fine Arts last Sunday.
The opening by His Excellency Dr Hamed Said Al Oufi, Undersecretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, was followed on five successive nights by workshops by Saleh and Sami, designed to promote calligraphy and mentor aspiring young artists. While Sami's practices predominantly classic forms of calligraphic art, Saleh concentrates on abstract forms.
Both artists are determined to advance calligraphy as an art form with unique Omani styles. Their mission includes educating the public and supporting emerging artists. To that end, Sami has hung a sequence of drawings that show, step by step, the painstaking processes involved in creating a perfect work of calligraphic art.
Patience and Exactitude
As Sami took me on tour explaining how a preliminary sketch evolves into a beautiful work of art, I was impressed by the degree of patience and exactitude involved. We should not forget that Arabic calligraphy began, and still endures, as a devotional art and sacred endeavour in copying the Holy Qur'an, the word of God. It is a labour-intensive art that requires practised discipline and months of dedicated application to complete a major work.
Sami Al Ghawi showed how, for example, diamond dots are used to measure distances within compositional structures and how incisions are made in the paper to ensure a flawlessly straight edge on the extended rhythm of line in a letter. "Everything is made by hand – the pens, the paper, the ink and of course the drawing and painting."
It was fascinating to see Sami's tools on display – traditional bamboo pens with points ('nibs') of various sizes, a fork-like bamboo pen, a fine cutting implement, an ink pot and an exquisitely worked metal pen case, representing the esteem in which the art is held.
The exhibition is unique in that it is the first one in Oman to include an explicit educational dimension. Sami's step-by-step sequences which are essentially draft sketches sometimes culminating in a finished piece, sometimes not, succeed in conveying the technical sophistication of this ancient art - and illuminate its meticulous artistry. After viewing Sami's works which begin with a concise icon expressing the title of the exhibition, Ink and Colour, the visitor has gained an enriched understanding of the art of calligraphy and is ready for Saleh Al Shukairi's abstract works.