Traditional and Contemporary Calligraphy between East and West

The exhibition “Maktub” showcases the various uses of paper in the Islamic lands, with a focus on Arabic calligraphy – one of the foundations of Islamic art and culture. To this day the importance of Arabic calligraphy has not diminished. Many calligraphers continue this traditional art form and contemporary artists throughout the world incorporate it into their work.

Paper, which plays a major role in our daily life, was invented in China 2,000 years ago. But it was the Islamic world that spread the knowledge of paper worldwide. According to historical sources, knowledge of papermaking reached the Islamic world through Chinese prisoners of war captured in a battle in Central Asia in 751 CE. Chinese paper was mainly manufactured from local subtropical plants; however, these plants were unavailable in Central Asia and the Islamic lands and so in those regions paper was produced from remnants of cotton and linen cloth. Muslims who adopted the use of paper brought the knowledge of its production to Iraq, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and eventually to Europe. The diffusion of paper and papermaking skill in the Islamic world in the period between the eighth and the fourteenth centuries led to a flourishing of all pursuits of knowledge and research – theology, geography, astronomy, medicine, mathematics and literature.

The availability of paper brought about changes in the arts in general and Arabic calligraphy in particular. Writing in the Arabic language was perceived as a spiritual art, because Arabic was the language in which the Quran was revealed to Mohammad in the seventh century. The first words God speaks to Mohammad in the Quran signal the importance of writing in Islamic culture and art: “Recite in the name of thy Lord, Who taught by the pen, Taught man what he knew not.” (Sura 96: 3–5).

In the ninth century the art of calligraphy was established by the calligrapher Ibn Muqla (866–940). He developed a system of proportional script based on geometric principles and defined six types of script styles, which became the foundation for this art form.

Other calligraphers after Ibn Muqla continued designing Arabic script. From the tenth century, volumes of the Quran were transcribed on paper and bore many stylized decorations as well as “carpet pages” – entire pages covered with ornate decoration. From the fourteenth century, illustrated books became a major form of art in the Islamic world. The size of the paper allowed many illustrations of inanimate objects, animals and figures to accompany the script. The illustrations continue to proliferate and from the fifteenth century they began to be collected into albums. The printing revolution, which began in Europe at this time, was slow to reach the Islamic lands, and only in the eighteenth century did the first Muslim-owned printing press open.

The exhibition showcases traditional works of art alongside contemporary ones, most of them making use of calligraphy on paper. The traditional works present various uses of paper in Islamic lands, and reflect the importance of calligraphy in Islamic culture. These include calligraphic pages and calligrapher’s tools, Qurans, amulets, illustrated books, album pages as well as early printed materials, such as a Quran from the seventeenth century printed in Europe. The contemporary works on display offer new interpretations of traditional and stylized writing, and were created by the artists: Farid Abu-Shakra, Kutluǧ Ataman, Liron Lavi Turkenich, Kazuo Ishii, Shirin Neshat and Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson.


Dr.Sharon Laor-Sirak

Exhibition curator