Mural inspired by Hassan Massoudy

Mural in downtown Montreal, originally uploaded by mithraphoto.

This Flickr photo shows a mural in Montreal with an inscription in the lower right-hand corner: “Arab artistic calligraphy inspired by the work of Hassan Massoudy.”

Arabesque at the Kennedy Center

Arabesque at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center is currently hosting a three-week festival called Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World (February 23-March 15, 2009). The festival includes music, dance and theatre events, as well as exhibits by contemporary artists.

I visited the festival last Saturday, and was excited to see the work of two calligraphers displayed. Hassan Massoudy is an Iraqi artist who lives in France. He uses a large brush and vibrant colors to create his calligraphic art. His work was exhibited at the Kennedy Center in a 3-sided multimedia display, featuring examples of his art and video footage of him creating calligraphy.

Hassan Massoudy Calligraphy

Hassan Massoudy Calligraphy

Farah Behbehani is a graphic designer and calligrapher from Kuwait. For her masters’ thesis, she created a series of calligraphic illustrations based on a classic Sufi poem, The Conference of the Birds. Each illustration was accompanied by a decoding system which she describes as, “designed to make Arabic calligraphy more accessible for non-Arabic readers.” The spread below is from her book, which can be ordered from

Farah Behdehani

Farah Behbehani Calligraphy

Portrait of Mohamed Zakariya

A Turkish TV station called “Ebru” created this 27-minute video portrait of the American calligraphy artist Mohamed Zakariya. In this piece, Zakariya talks about how he became interested in calligraphy, the Ottoman calligraphy tradition, the process of creating a U.S. Postal Service stamp for the Muslim holiday of Eid, and why calligraphy is important. Several of Zakariya’s students are also interviewed.


I found this interesting experimental video called “Iqra’a” on YouTube the other day. The creator of the video says that he wanted to create a short animated piece that generated awareness among children about the beauty and importance of calligraphy and the Arabic language. The name “Iqra’a” is taken from the first word spoken to the Prophet Mohammed — “read!” 

While the piece definitely highlights the importance of the written word in Islamic culture, I also liked its lightheartedness.

The art of Illumination

Baghdad: City of Peace, Truly

Baghdad: City of Peace, Truly by Ellen Frank

NPR recently ran a radio story about artist Ellen Frank. Frank runs a modern-day workshop out of her home in New York, focusing on the traditional art of illumination. She accepts several young artists at a time, and they work under her guidance and participate in all aspects of the creation of commissioned work. Frank says about the apprenticeship, “I think we bring back an intimacy of mentorship and training, where the apprentice or intern learns directly from the experienced artists.”

Illumination was also a critical part of the calligraphy process in the Arab, Ottoman and Turkish traditions. This traditional art was passed down from master to apprentice, much as in Ellen Frank’s workshop. Geometric, floral and other non-figural decorations were used to surround a composition, giving it elegance and beauty. Full-page illuminations could often be found at the beginning of a Koran, or serving as a divider between sections. Divisions within the text were often marked by decorations in the margin. Details were painted in gold leaf and other brilliant colors such as blue, sepia, brown, white, green and red.

Modern-day Turkey has kept the traditional art of illumination alive. One the finest illuminators is the Turkish artist Fatima Özçay. (See her work below).

Makanna in Jeli Thuluth

Makanna in Jali Thuluth; Calligrapher: Osman Özçay, Illuminator Fatima Özçay

Calligraphy museums spring up in the gulf

Several museums featuring Arabic script calligraphy have opened in the last few years, highlighting a growing worldwide interest in this art form.

The Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy in Kuwait opened on March 14, 2007. According to the museum website, “its aim is to trace the development of the Arabic script.” The collection belongs to Tareq Sayed Rajab (former Director of the Department of Antiquities and Museums of Kuwait) and includes a variety of calligraphic work dating from the 7th century until today.

Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy

Tareq Rajab Museum of Islamic Calligraphy

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar opened in 2007. The MIA was designed by architect I.M. Pei and planned in coordination with the British Museum. The museum’s collection dates from the 7th century to today, and its calligraphy represents a range of media such as Korans and manuscripts, ceramics, tiraz and coins. The museum is located on an artificial island accessible by pedestrian bridge. It aims to be the foremost museum of Islamic art in the world, and according to its website, “a centre of education and information in the field of the arts of the Islamic world.”

Visit each museum’s website for information about fees and hours of operation.

Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art