Passed down through many centuries, the writing styles and guidelines of traditional calligraphy continue to be practised today. Typically, artists undergo the same lengthy training and use a similar range of tools and techniques as those who have gone before them.

From the middle of the 20th century, a new modernist style emerged, which is often termed ‘hurufiyya’, after the Arabic word for letter, ‘harf’. Letters are always included as a key visual element but they are written or painted in a style individual to the artist. They fall within a wider system of imagery using a range of media that often moves beyond ink on paper.

In Iran, artists responded to criticism of western influence and incorporated popular symbols of Shi’a culture alongside writing and calligraphy. More recently, letters have become a more dominant visual element, written or painted in a free, at times deconstructed, format. Those letters do not always form meaningful words  but are included because of their symbolism and the beauty of their shapes. Artists use script to communicate many different messages, often touching on their own personal identity and life experiences. They may respond to political events, for instance the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, or offer social commentary on topics such as women’s roles within society. Compositions often draw on the heritage of the artist but present it in new ways, sometimes employing different media from photography to ceramics.

Golnaz Fathi Untitled, 2006 CE Acrylic on paper Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. ©Golnaz Fathi / Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust


Golnaz Fathi
Untitled, 2006 CE
Acrylic on paper
Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
©Golnaz Fathi / Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Golnaz Fathi received a diploma from Iran’s Calligraphy Association but now works is a more abstract form incorporating letters, symbols and famous poetry.

Some of the letters painted on these scrolls are purposefully abstract and often illegible. The artist also left the scrolls ‘Untitled’. In this way, she invites viewers to use their imagination to interpret her works of art. Excerpts from famous poetry, painted alongside the abstract writing, provide some clues to interpretation. This combination of abstract shapes and literature along with bold primary colours and new media are features of Fathi’s work. For this Iranian artist, her contemporary and individual style represents a break away from her training as a traditional calligrapher.


Lalla Essaydi Les Femmes du Maroc, 2005 CE Photography Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. ©Lalla Essaydi / Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Lalla Essaydi
Les Femmes du Maroc, 2005 CE
Photography
Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.
©Lalla Essaydi / Photo ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Lalla Essaydi’s work often presents the female body in combination with writing.

‘I am writing. I am writing on me,
I am writing on her.
The story began to be written the moment the present began.
I am asking how can I be simultaneously inside and outside? I didn’t even know this world existed, I thought it existed only in my head, in my dreams. And now here I am, an open book…’

Here a woman is portrayed in traditional Arab dress, with writing in henna covering her clothes and skin and the walls around her. This inscription makes reference to the female artist as a writer, as well as to the world inhabited by the woman in the photograph. Essaydi’s work draws upon her own experiences as an Arab woman growing up in Morocco and highlights gender stereotypes. By portraying a veiled, traditional Arab woman and identifying her as a writer, the artist challenges the convention of calligraphy as a male dominated art form.


Laura Boushnak is a Kuwait-born photographer, whose recent work has focused on Arab women and education in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Kuwait.

This series of images show women’s literacy classes in Egypt. On the larger photographs, the women have written about their lives, providing insights into their education. Boushnak draws attention to women’s literacy in Egypt, where United Nations figures suggest that over half of the female population cannot read or write. These photographs were taken in Egypt in 2011, at a time of great political change in the country which continues today. Through them, Boushnak hints that without education, women may only be able to play a limited role in the country’s changing political landscape. (All works courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum. © Laura Boushnak)