The Power of the Word
By Kamil Walji


Dr. Venetia Porter signs copies of her book ‘Word into Art’

On April 29, 2007, His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for the Western United States, the Ancient Art Council and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) hosted "The Power of the Word: Word into Art," an exploration of the work of contemporary Middle Eastern artists and the art of Arabic calligraphy. The guest speaker, Dr. Venetia Porter, was invited to discuss a highly successful exhibition "Word Into Art," recently held at the British Museum, London, where she is the Curator of Islamic Collections.
Contextualizing the art of Arabic calligraphy within the history of Islam, Dr. Porter described the birth of calligraphy as not only a means of communicating the word of God but also a decorative, artistic expression. The exhibition included wide-ranging examples of calligraphy that transformed writing into art, books of poetry, and political commentary. All of these reflect the richly diverse artistic heritage of the region.
A powerful theme running through all the works was how artists engaged and experimented with the Arabic script. For some this resonated with the sacred tradition of Islam and the Qur'an. Other artists used calligraphy to express social and political ideas which transcended geographic and religious borders. Examples included Shirin Neshat's "Offered Eyes" commenting on the state of women in Iran and Egyptian Sabah Naim's work that examined the separation between media representations and reality. Though Arabic calligraphy is most often associated with the Qur'an, Dr. Porter shared examples of sacred works of Arab Christian artists with verses of the Bible in the Arabic script as well as the works of other artists from China and Japan.
Ultimately, the presentation spotlighted the potential power of cross-cultural understanding by illustrating the pluralism and diversity of a region through the artistic calligraphic medium. Museums, using exhibitions like "Word into Art" as dynamic tools for instruction and reflection, have an increasingly important role as catalysts for cultural exchange and communication.
Commented Laila Hussain, an art enthusiast: “As you may know, both The London Times and the Financial Times gave rave reviews of her exhibition which highlighted contemporary art and culture emerging from the Middle East and North Africa today. It was a privilege for many of us in Los Angeles to experience the spectacular ‘Word into Art’ Exhibition displayed several years ago at the British Museum. The audience expressed great interest learning about the art of calligraphy and understanding the diverse artistic expressions of artists in the Middle East.”

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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