Calligraphy forum explores future of quintessential Arabic art genre

Calligraphers from China, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States participated in the forum.

Sunday 15/03/2020
Works on display at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo. (Hassan Abdel Zaher)
Works on display at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo. (Hassan Abdel Zaher)

CAIRO - The fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo brought together Arab and foreign calligraphers to discuss the past and chart the future of Arabic calligraphy in the age of fast-developing technology.

The 12-day forum, which opened March 5, was attended by approximately 160 calligraphers. It included seminars, workshops and discussions on the future of Arabic calligraphy, the evolution of the writing of the Quran, the effects modernity and globalisation on the art and whether modern technology is a blessing or a curse for the profession.

“This is an important event, not only because it gathers this large number of top calligraphers from different countries but also because of the importance of calligraphy for the Arab and Islamic culture,” said Mohamed al-Arabi, an Egyptian calligrapher and member of the forum’s organising committee.

Calligraphy is the most beautiful expression of Arab Islamic culture and has captivated generations of Arab and foreign artists.

Calligraphers from China, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States participated in the forum. There were Arab calligraphers from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Mauritania.

The forum coincided with the celebration of Cairo as the capital of Islamic culture for 2020 and was among a long list of events designed to mark the occasion.

Saudi Arabia, backed by 16 other countries, is planning to request that UNESCO include Arabic calligraphy on its Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a step calligraphers hope would protect the traditional art.

Egypt is increasingly interested in preserving and developing calligraphy as an expression of Arabic and Islamic culture, an interest shown through efforts by the Ministry of Culture in organising the forum.

A parallel exhibition featured dozens of works by leading calligraphy artists. The works highlighted various calligraphy schools from around the world. Some presented innovative representations of Quranic verses while others were Arabic script that demonstrated the skill of their artists and the beauty of calligraphy.

“The diversity and the richness of the experiences that participants are bringing in make the forum a very special event. Calligraphers have travelled from all corners of the world to participate,” said Saudi calligrapher Saud Shakir Khan.

Apart from the exhibition, the seminars and workshops, the forum gave participants the chance to review ancient manuscripts held by Egyptian cultural and religious institutions.

These included rare copies of the Quran from the library of al-Azhar Mosque and manuscripts from the Egyptian National Library and Archives, the country’s oldest library. It holds tens of thousands of ancient books and manuscripts.

Among challenges facing calligraphy is poor working conditions of calligraphers in many countries, including Egypt where few calligraphers can earn a living solely depending on their work.  Most of them must have other jobs to buy the necessary tools and make ends meet.

Fast-paced technological developments that have allowed machines to be in competition with humans in producing calligraphy works create other challenges.

Technology offers new vistas for calligraphy by helping the evolution and development of the art. However, some developments are considered a threat to calligraphers who are wary of technology capable of producing calligraphic works.

“This is why technology is emerging as a major challenge for the calligraphers,” said Jassim Hamid, an Iraqi calligrapher and one of the participants in the forum. “The calligraphers need to think of how best they can turn this technology into a friend, rather than a competitor or an enemy.”

Saudi calligrapher Saud Shakir Khan in front of one of his works on display at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo.  (Hassan Abdel Zaher)
Saudi calligrapher Saud Shakir Khan in front of one of his works on display at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo. (Hassan Abdel Zaher)
A visitor looks at artworks at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo.                        (Hassan Abdel Zaher)
A visitor looks at artworks at the fifth Arabic Calligraphy Forum in Cairo. (Hassan Abdel Zaher)
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