An initial tour of the exhibition gives a general impression that one is witnessing a brilliant mix of art, history and spirituality. In fact, visitors should tour the gallery more than once in order to fully enjoy the experience.
The event is in two parts or, rather, it can be divided into two mini-exhibits. Visitors can start their tour by turning left at the entrance into the “Words” section to peruse the Arabic calligraphy exhibits, or by turning right into the “Illumination” section to be enthralled by the photographs of Medina on show there.
The exhibits progress gradually from traditional forms of Arabic calligraphy to showing how modern Arab and international artists are using calligraphy in their work. Those whose works are on show include Abdel-Qader Al Raes from the United Arab Emirates, Iran’s Farhad Moshiri, Iraq’s Hassan Massoudy, Saudi Arabia’s Nasser Al-Salem, Japan’s Fuad Kocihi Honda, China’s Hajji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang, Tunisia’s Nja Mahdaoui and Azerbaijan’s Rashed Alakbarov.
Saleh Barakat, the curator of “Words,” explains that the exhibits begin by paying tribute to the Saudi pioneers of classical calligraphy, including Nasser bin Abdulaziz Al-Maymoun and Abdul Rahman Amjad, before moving on to more well-established artists. “In my view, they have been unlucky and deserved more acclaim,” he says.
Proceeding to a different part of the exhibition where more modern art works are on display, Barakat says: “In the 1950s and 1960s, Arabic calligraphy began to be used as an art form, away from its traditional, classic job of writing the Qur’an.” He points to the work of Shaker Hassan Al-Saeed as an artist who utilizes Arabic calligraphy in his paintings.
The middle of the hall is dominated by a huge tree of words with gilded golden and silver letters adorning its branches. Entitled Tree of Life, by Kuwaiti artist Farah Behbehani, serves as a focal point for the visitors. Further down the hall there are other works of art by renowned Middle Eastern artists, including Ahmed Mostafa’s Invisible Warriors of Badr, which is on loan from the Hisham Ahmed Ali Rida collection. Following this, visitors arrive at the works of Iranian artists Parviz Tanavoli and Mohammad Ehsai and Iraqi artists Shaker Hassan Al-Saeed and Dia Azzawi.
Among the works of Tunisian artist Nja Mahdaoui on show at the exhibit are Tunisian drums adorned with wonderful Arabic calligraphy that, although it may not have a specific meaning, overall produces a specific visual aesthetic effect that goes beyond any literal meaning of the words. Drums are widely used during religious celebrations in Tunisia where songs and melodies are a part of life. Tunisian singers traditionally tie their drums to their shoulders using leather straps. Mahdaoui’s drums hang in mid-air in a manner that entices visitors to bang on them.
There are also a number of works on display by Saudi artist Nasser Al-Salem. At first glance his artwork may appear to be uncomplicated, but it harbors hidden depths. Salem’s works on display include the painting Whoever Obeys Allah, He Will Make For Him A Way Out. The painting is of a maze, but a closer look reveals the Arabic word makhraj [a way out] made out of the walls of the maze. What is particularly wonderful about Salem’s work is his use of different materials, from wood and neon bulbs to mirrors and light, giving his work a feeling of infinity.
Barakat then refers to the works of Lebanese artist Carla Salem. Her work is characterized by blending Japanese and Arabic calligraphy techniques using a prolonged process whereby Arabic words such as “sun” and “moon” are written on the trunk of a tree.
Venetia Porter, Assistant Keeper of the British Museum’s Department of the Middle East and a coordinator of the “Words” exhibition, says: “The idea here is to concentrate on the art of calligraphy. We wanted to distance the exhibition from a similar one organized by the British Museum a few years ago, and so we were eager to exhibit different art works.”
From classical works of art to more abstract examples, Porter highlights works of art that use Arabic calligraphy in new and different ways. “Here we see artists who use characters and words in a more abstract manner. In a third manner, we see artists using letters in non-traditional ways, whereby they abandon pens and ink and use light and shadow to embody this, as shown in Farah Behbehani’s Tree of Life. Similarly, Alakbarov’s Nour [Light] sees this word being formed by shadow on the opposing wall,” Porter says.
Well-known Saudi art collectors have patronized the exhibition, including the Al-Mansouria Foundation, as well as collectors such as Sara Ali Rida, Faisal Tamr, Mohamed Hafez and Shadiya Alem. The exhibition has also been loaned artworks from dealers in Lebanon and Dubai, as well as the British Museum.
After touring the “Words” exhibition, the adjacent “Illuminations” expo contains a large collection of photographs of Medina. These include old images of historic Medina alongside artistic shots of the modern city taken by renowned Saudi artists such as Ahmed Mater, Abdulnasser Gharem, Arwa Al-Neimy, Adel Qureshi and Faisal Al-Maliki, as well as international artists such as Brazilian photographer Humberto da Silveira.
These artists use the camera lens as a tool of artistic expression, with their photographs focusing on Medina’s Masjid Al-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. There are also images of pilgrims in the city, as well as photographs of Medina’s breathtaking antiquities and landscape.
This exhibition brings with it the fragrance and feel of the history of the Prophet’s Mosque via a series of portraits of some of the Al-Aghwat , a Turkish word describing young castrated boys who serve as keepers of the Masjid Al-Nabawi. These images were taken by photographer and art collector Adel Qureshi, who documented the last generation of the Al-Aghwat. The portraits are amazing, and visitors are confronted with a living piece of the long and storied history of the Prophet’s Mosque. The faces of the Al-Aghwat come alive in these portraits, but they also appear to be concealing much, particularly as the Al-Aghwat have historically refrained from publicly commenting on their long history of service at the mosque. These portraits may be the last recorded images of them at the Masjid Al-Nabawi, particularly as Sheikh Al-Aghwat Said Adam Agha passed away late last year.
The photographer, whose images succeeded in attracting so many visitors, chose to shun the limelight, but his beautiful images are worth a thousand words. They have succeeded in opening the door to the more mysterious chapters of the history of the Prophet’s Mosque, many details of which remain unclear. The feelings evoked by these images linger, staying with visitors to the exhibition long afterwards. Visitors’ eyes will also be drawn to a picture near the Al-Aghwat portraits of a page of a book entitled The Holy Mosque Mirror. It has an image of two members of the Al-Aghwat in their childhood by Ibrahim Pasha, which dates back to the 18th century.
At the end of the next room the visitor is greeted by a huge, carved wooden door. It is like a wooden monument standing guard over the photos of the old city, as though it had emerged fully formed from one of the photographs to present visitors to the exhibition with a tactile example of Medina’s history.
“This is a door of one of the oldest houses in the city [from the house of the Alkhereiji family] that a friend successfully saved from destruction in 1972 and kept until now,” says exhibition curator Mohamed Al-Edrisi.
Edrisi then indicates another rare work of art, a panoramic portrait from 1825 of Medina painted by a Turkish pilgrim “in the Italian style of the painter Canaletto.’
In one of the adjacent halls, Saudi photographer Arwa Al-Neimy surprises visitors with a set of photos of the ceiling of the Rawda Al-Sharifa at the Prophet’s Mosque, which holds the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad and two of his companions, Abu Bakr and Umar Ibn Al-Khattab.
At first glance, the photographs seem like nothing more than colorful canvases, yet it becomes clear that they are actual photographs as one approaches. Neimy has named the collection A Piece of Heaven, as they are reminiscent of the Holy Rawda that, according to Hadith, also exists in heaven. The photos are indescribable and truly wonderful, skillfully catching details that visitors might miss when actually visiting the Rawda at the Prophet’s Mosque.
Throughout the tour, there are also photographs taken by renowned Saudi artist Ahmed Mater of the Prophet’s Mosque, the Minaret of Qaitbay, and another scene of Eid prayers at the mosque. There is also a series of photographs lent by the Amin Foundation, the Abdulnasser Gharem gallery of Medina and the Prophet’s Mosque.
The “Illuminations” and “Words” exhibition perfectly complement each other to showcase Medina, the city of Words and Illuminations.