American Qur’an

I recently found out about a fascinating project by the artist Sandow Birk, who is working to create an “American” Qur’an. The lettering and illustration for this manuscript are informed by a uniquely American aesthetic, which contrasts sharply with more traditional manuscripts found in the Middle East. Below is a description of the project:

[This is] an ongoing project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur’an according to historic Islamic traditions and to illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. Five years in the making, the project has been inspired by a decade of extended travel in Islamic regions of the world and undertaken after extensive research.

To find out more, visit:

Music of the Eye

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet Sanaa Boutayeb Naim, a Moroccan filmmaker who lives here in Washington, DC. In the fall of 2008 she produced a documentary feature about master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, and kindly allowed me to feature the video on the blog. In this 11-minute documentary, Mohamed Zakariya offers insight into the art of Arabic script calligraphy. I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching.

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