The term Islamic Art refers not to a specific style or period but to the many arts produced by people living in predominantly Muslim cultures over the past 14 centuries. Calligraphy—beautiful writing—is a premier art of Islamic cultures, the medium through which the words of the Qur’an and other texts, both sacred and secular, are made immediate and visual. Islamic art also encompasses monumental and domestic architecture, tiles and other ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and figurative painting, including Persian miniatures and Mughal paintings. Although Islamic art is often described as highly decorative in nature, 18th and 19th century Ottomans reintroduced concepts of spare design. Throughout its history, Islamic art has been influenced by the arts of other cultures, such as Rome, Byzantium, Central Asia, and ancient Iran. In turn, the geometric patterns, floral motifs, and lettering found in some traditional Islamic art have found echoes in contemporary art.
Widely recognized as the foremost practitioner of Arabic-script calligraphy in the United States, California-born Mohamed Zakariya is a versatile artist whose transformational use of Western design principles is energizing a time-honored Islamic art. Linearis is pleased to present Zakariya’s work to audiences world wide.
Although he is a master of the classical Arabic scripts and well-grounded in the historical styles, Zakariya has reinterpreted the tradition through the lens of his own artistic sensibility, bringing to his calligraphy a sophisticated color sense, confident strength of composition, and controlled yet fluid movement of line. The result is work that resonates with people of all backgrounds.
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Calligrapher, turner, metalworker—combines classical standards with a modern sensibility to produce works on paper, fantasies in wood, and instruments from the history of science. With no formal education, Zakariya learned his trades in aerospace-industry machine shops; in the Los Angeles atelier of Oscar Meyer, the French impresario of antiques and objects de virtu; at the British Museum; and at Istanbul’s Research Center for Islamic Art, History, and Culture, where he earned two licenses in Islamic calligraphy—the first Westerner to do so.
Zakariya grew up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s. “There was no better time to be a boy,” he says. “We could go anywhere and see anything. The area was full of the world’s cast-offs--cranks, eccentrics, old men tinkering in their garages. Great things were to be found in dusty antique shops. We played on the beach and went to school barefoot. Our teachers were glorious fools, and school was not for study but for discovery.”
In 1961, after a holiday in Morocco, Zakariya accepted Islam and began to learn the Arabic language and the study of Islamic calligraphy. He was 19. These interests took him many times to Morocco, Spain, and England, where he remained for a few years studying calligraphy and manuscripts at the British Museum. During this time, he made a living restoring old houses and acting in the British comic troupe “Bruce Lacey and the Alberts.”
Since settling in the Washington, D.C., area in 1972, Zakariya has traveled frequently to Turkey and the Persian Gulf and has exhibited and lectured extensively in this country and abroad. Known for his design of the “Eid Greetings” U.S. postage stamp, he concentrates primarily on classical Arabic and Ottoman Turkish calligraphy. Recent experience includes a stint as artist-in-residence at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in Honolulu; solo exhibitions at the Institute for Works on Paper, San Francisco; and the Bellevue (Washington) Arts Center; and group exhibitions in Dubai and Kuwait.
Taking it as his mission to revive classical texts through aesthetically arresting presentation, Zakariya is considered the preeminent ambassador of the art of Islamic calligraphy in America.
In my 40-some years as an Islamic calligrapher, I’ve studied the history, techniques, and regional variations of the art. While I’ve found all aspects of script and illumination interesting, I wanted to find the best place from which I, as a Muslim of American/European background, could jump off to the present and the future. For me, that was the Ottoman Turkish method, which is both more modern and more rigorous when it comes to standards.
Unlike many calligraphers, I make my own tools and materials whenever possible, using the tried-and-true methods of the masters, and I do my own illumination. And although I’ve been trained in the classic manner, I believe in tempering tradition with flexibility and innovation. For example, I produce all my own marbled papers according to the Turkish ebru method, but I use different color schemes and patterns so that my work, while consistent with itself, is not derivatively Turkish. Similarly, I don’t follow the current Persianate trend in illumination that Turkish artists favor. Instead, I base my illumination schemes on what is often called Turkish Baroque—Islamicized ornamental themes that are European in origin. I find this style intrinsically simpler and bolder and more open to experimentation.
Modern Islamic artists—especially Westerners—face the persistent question of nationalism. Some say works of art written in Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi should be the exclusive preserve of people who are born in those cultures. But I take the traditional Muslim position that such matters as ethnic exclusivity have no place in the religion and its arts, that the languages and arts of Islam are the heritage of all Muslims, no matter what their origins.
Because calligraphy isn’t bound by the need to represent objective reality, it’s free from the cultural and political constraints associated with the pictorial arts. This sets the calligrapher free and, at the same time, adds new constraints. This constant tension between constraint, tradition, and standards makes Islamic calligraphy neither a representational art nor an abstract one but something entirely other—a living, evolving art of the word, of meaning itself.
I’ve been associated with Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar since 2004 as a member of the VCUQ Joint Advisory Board. In November 2004, I curated “The Art of Calligraphy in the Islamic Context,” an exhibition of works from the collection of H.E. Sheikh Hasan bin Mohammed al-Thani of Qatar, in conjunction with VCUQ’s “Expanded Frontiers: An International Symposium on Islamic Art,” in Richmond. Since then, I have designed and calligraphed logos and accompanying text for “Rivers of Paradise,” the 2007 symposium, and for “And Diverse Are Their Hues,” the 2008 symposium. I have also calligraphed titles and authors’ names for the proceedings of the 2007 symposium.
Mohamed Zakariya in Doha, Qatar attending a symposium
Mohamed Zakariya, touching up a work of his calligraphy
Mohamed Zakariya, Fear Not, 2009, Ink, gold, paper, hot tempera, ebru border, Jeli sulus script
Mohamed Zakariya, God's Encounter with Moses at the Burning Bush. Sulus script, Yellow ink, grey-dyed Twin Rocker paper
Mohamed Zakariya, Astrolabe, 1984
Mohamed Zakariya, Calligraphic pens
Celestial Globe, 1985
Mohamed Zakariya, 2008