INSIGHT: Sheila Blair, shared Hamad Bin Khalifa Chair VCU and keynote speaker, talking about writing as signifier of Islam.
Photo by Shemeer Rasheed

Some of the world’s leading art experts discussed and explored visual arts in the
Islamic world at a symposium organised by VCU-Qatar. By Umer Nangiana
Text can enhance the objects it is written on, and the mere placement, size, colour and other features of the text enhance its actual meaning. Arabic, after Roman script, is today the most frequently used segmental script in the world. Such writings are signifier of Islam.
Sheila Blair, a historian of Islamic art, expressed these thoughts as a keynote speaker at the recently concluded Hamad Bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art sponsored and organised by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of the Arts and VCU-Qatar.
Twelve of the world’s leading Islamic art experts discussed and explored some of the broad topics of visual arts in the Islamic world. The experts spoke on topics around the subject of writing in Islamic art, with the title of the symposium being ‘By the Pen and What They Write: Writing in Islamic Art and Culture.’
Demonstrating examples from history, Sheila Blair, the shared Hamad Bin Khalifa Chair of Islamic Art, said that adoption of Arabic script affected the visual world of Islam, examining the interplay between form and meaning.
“These examples show that writings in Arabic script have pre-eminence in Islamic art and culture. They are, in other words, a signifier. Writing can be content in words but it also imparts meaning by direction, placement and form,” Blair told the audience.
“The viewer does not need to be able to read Arabic script to recognise its presence and appreciate its value. The inscriptions do not need to be even readable,” she added.
One of the examples Blair quoted and showed on screen was a ‘Minbar’ (elevated platform for prayer leader in a mosque) currently placed in Badi Palace, Marrakesh, Morocco. Originally, Almoravid monarch Ali ibn Yusuf commissioned it for his Great Mosque of Marrakesh. Created with different woods (cedar, acacia, box, jujube), natural bone painted green, ivory (sculpted, carved, openwork, assembled, inlaid and gilded), the minbar was made in 1137 AD at a workshop in Cordoba by a craftsman, Aziz.
The minbar is a mobile pulpit with eight steps supported by vertical walls ending with lateral arcatures linked by a ramp. Both the internal and external sides are decorated. The entire Andalusian decorative repertoire, vegetal, floral, geometric and epigraphic, has been employed.
The sides and the back are framed with Kufic inscriptions (Qur’anic text, pious formulas and three foundation texts). The characters are embossed, sculpted or inlaid. Marquetry and bone and ivory inlay have been used on the sides for chequered geometrical knot work and the floral designs, in the shape of trees of life, crowned by arcatures that decorate the back and the risers.
One of the inscriptions on it says that Ali ibn Yusuf commissioned it from a workshop in Cordoba in 1137 for the Great Mosque of Marrakesh. The Almohad ‘Abd al-Mu’min spared the minbar when he razed Ali’s mosque in AD 1147. He put it in his mosque, the original Kutubiya and then transferred it to his second, current Kutubiya, where it was used until the 1950s.
“The Arabic script held power from the earliest centuries of Islam, said the keynote speaker, adding that it continues to do so even today,” said Blair, quoting a recent example of the Ismaili Centre of Toronto that opened recently just over a year ago.
According to its website, the architect of the centre has designed that building in a way that it responds to the tradition of Islamic architecture in a contemporary design, using modern materials.
The choices of Arabic text used in inscriptions also enhance the meaning of the objects on which they are written, Blair told the audience.
Blair writes on many aspects of the Islamic art, from the Dome of the Rock to modern calligraphy, but her special interests are the art and architectures of the Mongol period and the arts of writing.
Among other speakers, Jonathan Bloom, the co-organiser of the event and the shared Hamad Bin Khalifa Chair of Islamic Art VCU, discussed how paper changed Islamic literary and visual culture. “Paper has been invented in China, but spread across Eurasia to Europe during the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation. The paper is what facilitated writing and resulted in millions of written documents ranging from theology and grammar to pharmacology and cookery,” said Bloom.
Kristine Rose Beers spoke about ‘Reading with Conservators: The Language of Book Archaeology,’ the conservator’s approach through the knowledge of technology, chemistry and the physics of the materials.
Dana Sajdi, one of the speakers, talked about ‘Chained: Orality, Authority, and History’ explaining while news were mainly transmitted orally during the 18th century by scholars or in coffeehouses and barbershops, it then emerged into a written version through the printing of the newspaper in the late 19th century.

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