With canvas and Quran, one artist aims to make Islamic calligraphy a universal language

Given her family history, Salma Arastu may be one of the last people you’d expect to be helping to modernize Islamic calligraphy.

Her Hindu parents fled their home in Pakistan, resettling in India during the nightmare of mob violence between Muslims and Hindus when the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947. Arastu was born in India a few years later. But unable to cope with what had happened, her father, a doctor, died soon after of a heart attack that his family attributes to the stress of the move.

“He never got over it,” Arastu, now 68, said recently in her airy, skylit studio in an industrial part of Berkeley. “It was the shock, I think.”

So Arastu’s journey to becoming a Muslim holds special weight. After graduating from art school in India, she overcame her family’s resistance and converted to Islam when she married her husband, an architect. They moved to Iran and then Kuwait, followed by Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and finally California.

Salma Arastu is one of many artists using Islamic calligraphy in nontraditional ways — not to everyone's approval.
(Jana Asenbrennerova)

It was in Iran that Arastu first encountered Islamic calligraphy, stylized writing of verses from the Quran or the sayings of the prophet Muhammad in Arabic script.Even though she couldn’t yet read Arabic, she responded to its movement and grace, and she began copying it.

Years later, after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, she made the jump from sketchbook to canvas with the goal of expressing her belief that Islam is a beautiful religion and that people of all faiths are equal in the eyes of God. She is now part of a cadre of artists taking Islamic calligraphy into new styles and new ways of professing the faith, as well as into the realms of politics and protest.

Her textured fountains of bright color are displayed in galleries and museums in Washington, D.C.; Houston; St. Louis; and Portland, Ore. She is also curating two shows of Muslim female artists in the Bay Area. “The Word: Visual Interpretations by Local Muslim Women Artists” opened recently at the Arc Gallery in San Francisco. It will be followed in March by an exhibition at the Abrams Claghorn Gallery in Albany, Calif.

Salma Arastu in her Berkeley studio. The artist has curated two gallery shows centered on Islamic calligraphy.
(Jana Asenbrennerova)

“My work is all about people coming together,” Arastu said, ready for a day of painting in loose-fitting cotton pants and tunic with her black hair tied tight behind her head. “That is my dream. … I want to show people what the Quran has taught me about diversity, community, friendship and peace.”

There are prestigious Islamic calligraphy schools in Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, where students study strokes, pens, inks, papers and elements of style for years. The best go on to apprentice with a master before launching on their own.

But in the middle of the 20th century, some artists began breaking the rules. Lines, letters and words were exaggerated or repeated in new ways and in new mediums — glass, wire, neon and more. By the 1980s, their art had a name — the hurufiyya or letter movement.

Solo and group exhibitions of this contemporary Islamic calligraphy and its secular cousin have been staged in Egypt, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Painters, sculptors, photographers, print and lithograph makers and street artists also work now in the United States and elsewhere.

A 2006 exhibition of 90 hurufiyya artists staged by the British Museum was a kind of coming out for the art form beyond the Middle East. Today, museums in Europe and the U.S. include works by pioneers of the genre such as Dia Al Azzawi and Parviz Tanavoli, as well as younger artists like eL Seed whose “calligraffiti” street art has appeared on bridges in Paris and in Brazilian favelas.

“The script itself is so beautiful that artists, whether they are trained in calligraphy or not, can do wonderful things with it,” said Venetia Porter, curator of the British Museum exhibition. “Sometimes you can read real words in the art, but sometimes it is not about the word but about the shape of the word. They are rooted in tradition but then they do elaborate and virtuosic things.”


Artist Salma Arastu flips through some of her work. Some art incorporating Islamic calligraphy centers on the meaning of the passage; others treat letters more like graphic objects.
(Jana Asenbrennerova)

Some traditional Islamic calligraphers have concerns about the freewheeling expression in some of the new art.

Nihad Dukhan spent 11 years studying Islamic calligraphy in Turkey and now teaches and lectures about the art form in the U.S. He admires some of the work done by contemporary artists but worries that viewers confuse it with the classical form.

“It is almost a different genre,” he said. “It has its own etiquette and its own following, so it is not really threatening to classical calligraphy. But 95% of the public cannot judge: Is this good calligraphy or is it not?”

“There are no calligraphy police,” Dukhan said. “Really, anyone can do anything.”

Carol Bier, a research scholar at the Center for Islamic Studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, said a thread connects all of this work. “What is common is the visual reference to historical calligraphy, and to Arabic as the language of all Muslims, regardless of their native language,” said Bier, who has curated shows on the subject.

In the Bay Area, the anything-goes attitude is embraced by artists such as Rabea Chaudhry, whose calligraphy relies on a stamping technique; Rubina Kazi, whose works are inspired by Sufism; and Ayesha Samdani, whose calligraphy is sparked by natural forms and colors. Arastu is part of that scene. “I did not want to get into the rules,” she said. “I did not want to be limited to them. For me, I look at the word and write it with the brush.”

In addition to her Quran-based works, Arastu does a series that blends its verses with those of Hebrew, Sanskrit and Christian scriptures, as well as figures of dervishes. She also has done a series inspired by Pakistani miniatures, another traditional genre experiencing a modernizing trend.

Arastu recalls that she found a kind of freedom in calligraphy when she first was exposed to it.


Salma Arastu's notebook. The artist jots down passages from her daily reading of the Quran.
(Jana Asenbrennerova)

“It freed my line,” she said. “It became more lyrical. In one stroke there is a meaning and it is connecting to God. That line becomes a divine line.”

But it was the Sept. 11 terror attacks that pushed her to make her art public. She and her family were living in Pennsylvania at the time.

“For the first time I realized I have to be answerable to people who say, ‘Is Islam like that?’” she said. “‘Your God allows you to kill people?’ No. I am blessed to be a Muslim, and Islam is a beautiful religion. I started reading the Quran much more seriously.”

She started writing down passages from her daily reading of the Quran. She picks ones that center on the universality of Allah, the equality of all people, the breadth of God’s love and mercy. She meditates and prays over them until she feels ready to paint. She then works quickly, without sketches or plans.

“I feel like I am a tool,” she said, pausing over this day’s verse, “Repel evil with something better,” that seems to burst from her brush in juicy black on a background of orange. “I feel like I don’t do them.”

It’s not necessary to read Arabic to be moved by Arastu’s work, said DeWitt Cheng, a San Francisco-based curator and critic. “She manages to make an ambiguity between the spiritual message of the calligraphy and the atmospheric veils of color she creates so that they become universal to people who are open to the messages.”

This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Salma Arastu, who incorporates Islamic calligraphy in her painting, photographed in her Berkeley studio.
(Jana Asenbrennerova)


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