Where is Contemporary Islamic Art in the Arab World?
Where is Contemporary Islamic Art in the Arab World?

Where is Contemporary Islamic Art in the Arab World?

Author: Wijdan Ali
Originally published in NuktaArt, 2nd issue, January 2006
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Installation by Amin Gulgee and Painting by A.P.Santhanaraj, Rural Scape (detail)

In the art and architecture of a traditional Islamic society, the principles of a particular tradition inspire man’s creative energies and integrate all of society into a whole and complete entity.  In his endeavor to worship God, the Muslim creates an object that combines beauty and functionality according to a traditional archetype, with a synthesis of materials and shapes, for the sole purpose of finding an insight into the nature of God and of man’s affinity to Him.

To a Muslim, it is futile to study the outward forms of Islamic art without comprehending the spirit within.  It is within the Islamic tradition that one must seek the origins of Islamic art and the force that has created and sustained it over fourteen centuries, while making possible the dazzling unity and exhilarating interiority which this art possesses.

Unfortunately, such a description has ceased to apply to most of the visual arts in the contemporary Arab world. By the turn of the last century, Western art forms, mainly easel painting and three-dimensional sculpture, had already replaced the traditional arts among Arab artists in countries that had an early Western oriented art movement such as in Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. Western art became the sign of progress in these countries, and Islamic art did not fit the Western conception and was internalized as a “non-art” or at best as art of ornament. This process formed part of an alienation that engulfed modern Arab artists. It cut them off completely from the roots of their artistic heritage and forced them to start learning painting and sculpture from naught. They began to study art as novices without any background, while severing all ties with their own visual heritage. Furthermore, as economic, political, and military ties with the West were strengthened, the resulting physical and cultural hegemony led to a loss of confidence in the artists’ own heritage, and to the development of an inferiority complex towards the past. Paradoxically, this rupture constituted the first stage of an Arab artistic awakening and came at a time when traditional Islamic art, with the exception of calligraphy, had shrunk to a decorative form.

The development of modern art in the Arab world which applies to almost all Arab countries regardless of a time frame is associated with three stages:

The first stage is the one of ‘catching up’ with Western art and adapting to its traditions and aesthetics.  Arabs were introduced to European works by Christian missionaries, Western teachers at the newly created academies and schools of art, works of Orientalist painters, and paintings in the homes of foreigners, the local aristocracy, and rich native elite. The first art school was the School of Fine Arts in Cairo, a private undertaking established by Prince Yusuf Kamal in 1908, followed by Centre d’Art in 1923 that became the École des Beaux Arts in 1930 in Tunis. During the learning stage, the artists copied nature through portraits, landscapes, and still lives of wine bottles and flower vases, done after the academic methods and those of the Orientalists. Ironically, these same artists, who so enthusiastically followed the Western example, were surrounded by local architecture and handicrafts, with Islamic characteristics, types, and motifs. Yet they completely ignored them for the very simple reason that the output of their own civilization came to represent reactionary values of which they were ashamed, vis-à-vis the newly-imported, ‘progressive’ ideas coming from the West. The concepts of the West, beginning with the French Revolution and transported with Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition, as well as the literary, philosophical, and artistic movements that had started in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, had the effect of liberating Arab artists and intellectuals of the traditions that had weighed them down.  They offered a means by which artists could realize their national aspirations based on the doctrine of liberty and equality.

Abdelaziz Gorgi, Tunisia

During this phase there were two other groups of artists: the ones who continued their work with local subject matter and made the jump from academic figuration and Impressionism to Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and even Abstraction without any hesitation, although very few artists embraced abstraction before the 1960s. Others believed that art was universal and found no reason to look within, with their own cultural framework. Regardless of the style they chose, this group concentrated on competing to attain international standards, while disregarding any attempts to give art a local character. The new problem that presented itself to the first group of artists was how they could create a genuine visual form by manipulating their Western training, yet superseding Bedouin portraits, palm trees, and mud huts, especially since some of the newly created Arab states were building a secular or even socialist national identity. Hence, the religious aspects of the local cultures were put into the background while the heritage of pre-Islamic civilizations were re-discovered and explored.

During the third stage of development, which coincided with a period of cultural awakening and a barrage of imported western socialist, communist and secular ideologies, artists explored their ancient civilizations in a quest to ground their art in their cultural heritage. Egyptians probed Pharaonic and Coptic art, Iraqis drew on Sumerian and Babylonian traditions, the Sudanese reverted to their African and Coptic legacies, the North Africans returned to their African and Berber roots, and the Jordanians explored their Nabataean patrimony. Consequently, stylized forms replaced naturalistic renditions in figurative paintings, while folk motifs and iconography became part of expressionist and abstract compositions.  A second source of inspiration explored by contemporary artists in their search for a genuine, contemporary Arab identity was Islamic art, particularly two-dimensional miniatures and intricate arabesque designs found in illuminations, metalwork, and architectural decoration. Miniatures became a model for painters who sought a replacement for Western naturalistic figurative art, while arabesque patterns constituted a rich repertoire for abstract artists. Simultaneously, a number of artists drew on indigenous popular traditions such as shadow theatre, folk tales, and local handicrafts, acquiring their themes as well as their forms from popular legends painted either on glass, fabric, or paper, and rearranging them within modern formulations. The Lebanese artist Rafic Charaf (b.1923) first looked for inspiration into the folk tales of cAntar and cAbla.

Ammar Farhat and Abdelaziz Gorgi, among others, were also inspired by folk culture. Each one of these artists tried to find a style with which he or she could identify, in an attempt to differentiate their work from those of their Western peers. However, these styles were individual experiments whose effects at the time were only confined to the work of a particular artist.

Ahmed Sabri, Egypt
Faik Hassan, Iraq

Local Art Movements

In their search for an authentic artistic identity, several art groups were formed whose members made collective efforts to find a distinctive art style. The Society of Artistic Propaganda, founded in Egypt in 1928 was the first to concentrate on style rather than subject matter. Its goal was to free contemporary Egyptian art of foreign influences.  The Society was headed by the artist-pedagogue, Habib Gorgi (1892-1965), who became disillusioned with contemporary painting. He took peasant children from Harraniya village in Giza to his school, and left them on their own to mold their clay figures, without instructing them or criticizing their works. The results were works done in an infantile and naïve style. Gorgi’s school of art was later expanded by his son-in-law, the architect Wissa Wassef, and eventually became a world-famous tapestry center.

The Group of Modern Art was founded in 1947 by Hussein Yusuf Amin. In 1951, Jawad Salim (1921-61) founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group, the first in the Arab world to succeed in developing a local trend that drew on indigenous artistic traits while also taking full advantage of Western art styles and techniques. Its goal was to localize international art through fostering an historical awareness of Babylonian and Arab traditions, and express them within current contemporary Western styles of art. It strove to search for an Iraqi artistic identity without disengaging from other cultures and without returning to provincialism. The Group thus attempted to establish the foundation for the grounding of contemporary Iraqi art in a local environment. While studying abroad, Salim was also influenced by the works of Henry Moore and Picasso. He was probably the first Arab artist to embark on a quest for a national artistic identity within modern concepts and intellectualized folk motifs as symbols to denote an Iraqi artistic identity.

Through the calligraphy classes taught at the School of Design in Khartoum, Sudanese artists became aware of the graphic value of Arabic calligraphy as early as the mid-1940s. In the mid-1950s, a group of pioneer artists formed the Old Khartoum School. Its main supporters were Osman Waqialla (b.1925), Ibrahim al-Salahi (b.1930), and Ahmad Shibrain (b.1936). The group’s aim was to marry African cultural traditions from the south, Islamic visual traditions from the north, and indigenous local customs.  The members of the Old Khartoum School succeeded in creating a distinctively Sudanese sensibility. It employed traditional Islamic motifs and Arabic characters, along with African patterns of human, animal, and natural elements. Despite the efforts put forth by its members, they never worked cohesively and dispersed in the mid-1960s, before their efforts had a chance to mature and crystallize into a definite style. Nevertheless, the members of the Old Khartoum School started the calligraphic movement in Sudan.

Rafic Charaf, Lebanon
Farid Belkahia, Morocco

In 1964, a group of painters teaching at the École des Beaux Arts in Casablanca took, what was then, a daring and unconventional step among Moroccan artists. They introduced the teaching of Arabic calligraphy and local crafts into the École’s curriculum: the artists Farid Belkahia (b.1934), Mohamed Melihi (b.1936), and Mohamed Chebaa (b.1934).  Belkahia, the Director of the École, believed that the teaching of art in schools of fine arts should be a field for new experiments.  Prior to 1964, no courses in Arabic calligraphy were taught in any of the Moroccan fine arts institutions. Belkahia wanted to demonstrate that apart from its formal application, calligraphy could be a means to investigate the plasticity in its forms and implement them in graphic art.

Reproductions of local handicrafts were displayed in the classrooms and corridors of the École des Beaux Arts which replaced copies of Greek models and European landscapes. The three pedagogue-artists, Belkahia, Chebaa, and Melehi, who became known as the Casablanca School, wanted to allow Moroccan painting the freedom to express its creativity and make its own choices, far from imported academic restrictions.

Although individual Moroccan artists such as Cherkaoui had used folk signs in his abstract work from the 1950s, the artists of the Casablanca School were the first to work as a group in their search for a local style. Furthermore, they used the same materials employed by native craftsmen. Belkahia replaced his oils and canvas with beaten brass, skin, henna, saffron, and natural dyes. The three artists initiated their students in local design as a model to emulate in place of the European classical aesthetic.

They displayed their work in popular surroundings instead of galleries and exchanged their sophisticated gallery-public for the simple people of the streets. In their works, they drew on forms found in local carpets, tattoos, tribal jewelry, as well as ancient Berber and Arabic characters (Melihi  and Chebaa).

Members of the Casablanca School succeeded in founding an indigenous artistic movement that gave Moroccan modern art impetus as well as character. These indigenous artistic movements shared three principal traits.

  1. They identified with their subject matter, which drew on local themes and motifs.
  2. The trends set by these three artistic groups in Iraq, Sudan, and Morocco extended to the generations of artists that followed them, who continued their search for a local style unaffected by Western examples.
  3. None of these art movements spread beyond the geographic boundaries of their country of origin.

The continuity and revival of calligraphy, the only original Islamic art form to survive the atrophy of the rest of the tradition, was to become instrumental in reuniting contemporary Arab and Islamic artists with their cultural identity on a regional basis. Artists found the solution by developing a style that could relate to their cultural heritage, while benefiting from their Western artistic training. An answer to these needs emerged in what I term the Calligraphic School of Art – al-Madrassa al-Khattiya Fi’l-Fann – which includes calligraphic painting – taswir khatti or lawha khattiya and calligraphic sculpture – naht khatti – as opposed to the art of classical Arabic calligraphy – fann al-khatt al-carabi. The Calligraphic School of Art is based on the use of the Arabic alphabet. The common term used by most Arab art historians and critics is al-Madrasa al-Huruffiyah, that literally translates into ‘School of Letterism’, proved to be inadequate and inelegant. The foundation of the calligraphic movement in modern Islamic art is the traditional Islamic art of calligraphy. It is the application of the calligraphic Arabic letter that gives these words their aesthetic value. Only in cultures like China, Japan, Korea, and the Islamic world where calligraphy exists as an art form, do we find a contemporary visual aesthetic expression, based on the use of letters and characters, as a graphic element within the compositional structure of the modern visual art work.

The Calligraphic School of Art emerged as individual young Arab artists working in isolation, both in the West and the Islamic world, expanded towards this Islamic artistic tradition. Initially, probably none of them envisaged that her or his efforts would flourish into a full-fledged school of art in a span of a few decades. The first Arab artist to carry out research on the relationship between Arabic calligraphy and Western abstract art was the Iraqi painter Madiha Omar (b.1908). Since her childhood, Omar has been fascinated by the calligraphic and arabesque decorations on Islamic buildings in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. However, her interest in the graphic elements of calligraphy did not emerge until her early years in the United States when she came across a book on calligraphy by Nabia Abbott in 1944/45  that included a chart on the development of Arabic characters in North Arabia. Consequently, she discovered that letters were actually abstract forms and began experimenting with them in her work. She showed her first calligraphic paintings to the Islamic art historian, Richard Ettinghausen, who urged her to continue along the same lines. Thus Omar embarked on a new experiment that culminated in an exhibition of 22 of her paintings at the Public Library at Georgetown in Washington DC, in 1949. This was the first-ever exhibition of modern Arab calligraphic works to take place in a Western capital.  Accompanying the exhibition, Omar wrote an English declaration entitled Arabic Calligraphy: An Element of Inspiration in Abstract Art. By reducing her letters to their basic shapes, she liberated them from the confines of words and transformed them into intellectual and expressive images.  Omar saw in her letters perfect forms with dynamic properties that embodied abstract and symbolic meanings as well as particular ideas.

By the mid-1950s, other Arab and Islamic artists had become aware of the value of calligraphy in plastic works. One such artist was the Lebanese Said Akl (b.1926), who abstracted Arabic as well as Latin letters within geometric and irregular shapes as elements of his abstract compositions. In the 1970s, he developed simplified calligraphic symbols that stylistically blended with the whole composition. Throughout his career, Akl’s treatment of epigraphy has remained within the realm of abstraction.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese artists and founders of the Old Khartoum School, Osman Waqialla (b.1925), Ibrahim al-Salahi (b. 1930), and Ahmad Shibrain (b.1934), had begun experimenting with Arabic characters in their paintings. Waqialla first started trying out calligraphic forms within a modern context in the mid-1940s while still in Khartoum and later on moved to modern calligraphic paintings in which he manipulated the graphic quality of the letters within a thematic treatment, often including newspaper collages in his abstract compositions. Al-Salahi’s previous knowledge of Coptic manuscripts led him to experiment with Arabic calligraphy that he began to include in his paintings, finding in it a means of communication as well as a pure aesthetic form.

Shibrain embodies his country’s different artistic influences and procedures and combines calligraphy with local decorative signs to benefit from Sudan’s cross-cultural heritage of Islamic and African traditions, to which he is sensitive. He considers his carvings both a revival of the past and a medium that interprets contemporary forms. Each of the artists worked in total isolation from his contemporaries. In Washington, Beirut, and Khartoum, each young artist who was experimenting with calligraphy thought that she or he was the first to embark on a new artistic discovery. In the light of the manner in which calligraphic art evolved, it is difficult to pinpoint any one artist who launched the calligraphic school of art in the Arab world. However, by holding the first-ever exhibition in Washington DC in 1949, comprising strictly calligraphic works, and accompanied with a written statement, it can be fairly assumed that Madiha Omar was the first Arab as well as Islamic artist to formally inaugurate this school. She became the first artist to display calligraphy in the Arab world during her one-person exhibition in Baghdad in 1952.

In the 1960s the calligraphic movement in art gained momentum, reaching its peak in the 1980s. Artists throughout the Arab and Islamic world discovered in calligraphy a means to assert their identity as well as to ascertain their artistic versatility in a personal creative manner, far removed from Western traditions. Even Turkish artists who had been alienated and disconnected from the Arabic alphabet since Atatürk’s 1928 language reform, began using calligraphic forms in their plastic works. Such examples are the works of Erol Akyavas (b.1932), and the New York based artist Burhan Dogançay. However, for obvious reasons calligraphic art in Turkey has not been as widespread as in the Arab countries.

By the early 1990s, the tide of calligraphic trends in art began to ebb. They were replaced with various tendencies towards realism and figurative renditions. Nevertheless, a considerable number of calligraphic artists continued their work and research while developing and perfecting their styles. The Calligraphic School is more apparent in paintings than in sculpture, though a number of ceramists have used letters in their work. The Calligraphic School of Art in the Islamic world has thus far not been properly analyzed and categorized either by art historians and critics or by artists, not least because the development of the various calligraphic styles was not a concerted group effort or the product of one local school of art. It emerged out of diverse trends that evolved from each artist’s individual experiments and preferences. At best they formed loose groups who agreed, in principle, to assert their artistic identity through the use of Arabic calligraphy as well as other folk and indigenous motifs. Unlike groups in the West such as the Impressionists, Cubists, etc., groups of artists in the Islamic world never framed their ideas within a clear set of concepts. Consequently, it took a considerable amount of time for the different calligraphic art styles to develop and proliferate.

Meanwhile, the majority of calligraphic artists have moved from one style to another, at times unconsciously, believing that all are uniform, as long as they include Arabic characters, regardless of type of script or its place in the composition. In fact the artists themselves through their work, have unconsciously divided the calligraphic theme in art into three main styles that have gradually developed since the 1950s.  By examining the spectrum of calligraphic works, one finds that there is a Pure Calligraphic style, Abstract Calligraphic style, and Calligraphic Combinations.

Since the turn of the 20th century, Western art forms and aesthetics replaced the traditional Islamic arts throughout the world of Islam. Consequently, Arab artists embarked on a new experience, inducing a change in their creative expressions and general taste. For them, to be introduced to academic training was in itself a revolutionary step.

Plate, Ahmed Shibrain, Sudan

Eventually, they were able to revert to their own aesthetics in a contemporaneous manner. Their Western-oriented training, coupled with their Islamic cultural background, has served them well in finding an artistic identity.

For the majority of Islamic scholars and traditionalists, the only continuity perceived, if any, is through architecture.  The development that has taken place on certain architectural features such as the dome and the arch has been re-employed in modern mosques and dwellings and is accepted as the natural course of evolution of traditional shapes.

Even new building materials such as cement and aluminum are not looked down upon. This could be related to the functional quality of a building that complies with the principle of Islamic art which states that every creative effort should have a practical as well as an aesthetic meaning. However,

art in its global definition has greatly changed. The evolution that has taken place in the West during the Renaissance has moved art from the realm of the soul to that of the senses. The same applies to Islamic art. The devitalizing of Islamic civilization, the spread of Western culture, and superiority of Western technology, has induced artists in the Islamic world to evolve their techniques and modes of expression. Consequently, art in the Arab world has been divorced from utilitarian use. The artist had the choice of either aping the West or evolving his own style, while benefiting from his modern training.  His search for identity has led him back to his roots where he finds a basis for evolution. The love-hate relationship with the West could have guided the Arab artist to isolationism, which would have killed his creativity. In his quest to satisfy his ego and individuality, as well as utilize his training and the new art materials, the contemporary Arab artist has found a middle ground in the modern school of calligraphic art.  Through its principles, he continues to be creative without severing himself from either his past or the present.

Ahmad Mustafa, Egypt

Thus, the Calligraphic School of Art is a combination of Islamic as well as modern Western teachings, provided it abides by certain Islamic aesthetics that prevent it from reaching a degree of vulgarity.

Islamic art itself has borrowed from previous civilizations since its inception and throughout its history. Even after it matured and created its own styles, the inter-cultural exchange continued without having a deleterious effect on its aesthetics. For example, the strong influence of Chinese painting on Ilkhanid miniatures of the 13th century, was accepted as an Islamic art form in all respects, and seeped down to Persian and Ottoman miniature painting of the 16th century onwards. Similarly, when the contemporary Islamic artists borrow from Western art forms, and mix them with traditional aesthetics, to develop new and sometimes revolutionary styles, their work should also be acknowledged as Islamic. Had there not been an art of calligraphy in the Islamic civilization, there would not have been a modern school of calligraphic art.  Therefore, it is irrelevant whether or not calligraphy, within the different styles of the Calligraphic School, adheres to classical traditional scripts. Any development in style must evolve from a foundation. As long as the foundation and the aesthetics are clearly established, there can be continuity. One should also take into consideration the worldwide changes that have occurred in the concept of art in general in the 20th century up till today, as well as the conditions in which contemporary Islamic artists live and continue to grow.

The art of Arabic calligraphy is an integral part of Islamic art and will always be part of the tradition of Arab artists.  At this point a quotation by James W. Allen, the Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, seems appropriate: “For to me, as a western Christian curator of Islamic art collections, it is above all in Arabic calligraphy that Islamic identity belongs.  And it is my belief that it is the ability of contemporary artists to express that calligraphic tradition in a contemporary way that will bring Islamic art once again into the forefront of artistic expression world wide”.

The contemporary Calligraphic School of Art, prevalent throughout the Arab world, is grounded in its own culture and serves an aesthetic value that pleases both the eye and the soul. Therefore, it is the natural continuation of Islamic art in the 20th century.

Dr. Wijdan Ali is an art historian, painter, art curator and academic. She received her PhD in Islamic Art from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is the founder and president of the Royal Society of Fine Arts that established the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman. Since 2002, she has been the founder and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan and has published several books and papers on classical and contemporary Islamic art.


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Bakhtiar, L. and Ardalan, N.  The Sense of Unity. Chicago, 1973.
Jabra, J., Celebration of Life. Baghdad, 1988.
Nasr, S.H.  Islamic Art and Spirituality.  Ipswich, 1987.
Sijelmassi, M., L’Art Contemporain au Maroc, Paris, 1989.


Osman Waqialla, London, 26/5/1992.
Madiha Omar, Amman, 21/10/1992

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