Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600–1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an
On view October 7, 2008 to February 8, 2009
Two complementary exhibitions at Asia Society Museum explore Islamic art's quintessential art form: calligraphy. Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600-1900 and Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an demonstrate the breadth and beauty of Islamic calligraphy and the traditions of its practice across several centuries and two continents.
Together, these exhibitions examine the artistry of the tools used to create masterful works; examples of calligraphy, such as practice exercises, manuscripts, and folios from the Qur'an; and the social prestige associated with calligraphy. Approximately 150 objects and works from an important private collection in Houston, from the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, from the Harvard University Art Museums, and from the Morgan Library & Museum convey the elegance of the esteemed art form and reveal the skills of the many artisans—calligraphers, paper makers, gold beaters, illuminators, bookbinders, and metalworkers, to name a few—involved in the creation of the tools, the calligraphies, and the manuscript folios.
The practice of calligraphy constituted an expression of piety, as stated in the hadith (associated with the Prophet Muhammad): "the first thing created by God was the pen." Calligraphy became a worthwhile endeavor for men of all stations and served as a permanent record of the calligrapher's character.
Traces of the Calligrapher maps the practice of the calligrapher from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries both through examples of calligraphy, as well as through tools of the trade. The objects in the exhibition come from Iran, Turkey, and India, and include reed pens, penknives (used to cut the nib of the pen), and maktas (used to hold the pen during this process), in addition to inkwells, scissors, burnishers, storage boxes, and writing tables.
The fine craftsmanship of these objects is revealed in the exquisite and detailed designs, which often employ precious materials such as jade, agate, ivory, ebony, silver, and gold. Calligraphic practice exercises and fair copies are displayed alongside these implements, and a video shows a master calligrapher at work. Together, the objects and their output present a comprehensive overview of the intimate world of the calligrapher and the environment in which he worked.
Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an is devoted to key developments of the Islamic scripts of distinct cultural areas, spanning from Spain and North Africa to Greater Iran from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries. A selection of approximately twenty folios from now dispersed Qur'ans from the regions will illustrate the rich variety and system of scripts.
Exhibition Organization and Sponsorship
Traces of the Calligrapher and Writing the Word of God have been assembled by guest curators Mary McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic and Later Indian Art at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and David J. Roxburgh, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Professor of Islamic Art History at Harvard University. In Houston, Christine Starkman, curator of Asian art, and Vivian Li, curatorial assistant in the Asian art department, oversaw the presentation. At Asia Society, the in-house curator and coordinator is Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Curator of Traditional Asian Art. The exhibitions are organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Harvard University Art Museums. Generous support is provided by Mr. and Mrs. Vahid Kooros; The Hagop Kevorkian Fund; Mr. and Mrs. Ali Ebrahimi; Douglas Jaffe III – Horseshoe Bay Resort; Mr. and Mrs. Pat R. Rutherford, Jr.; The Seaver Institute; Fariba and Rainer Buchecker; and Mr. Kay-Ghobad "Kiddie" Zafar. The exhibitions are presented at Asia Society as part of Creative Voices of Islam in Asia, a three-year initiative funded in part by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
The exhibition Traces of the Calligrapher: Islamic Calligraphy in Practice, c. 1600-1900 is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue written by McWilliams and Roxburgh and published by the MFAH. Writing the Word of God: Calligraphy and the Qur'an is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue written by David J. Roxburgh. Both catalogues are published by MFAH and are available for sale at AsiaStore at Asia Society Museum.
About the Asia Society
Asia Society is the leading global and pan-Asian organization working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders and institutions of the United States and Asia. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia Society is a nonprofit educational institution with offices in Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Manila, Melbourne, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, and Washington, D.C.
Asia Society Museum presents groundbreaking exhibitions and artworks, many previously unseen in North America. Through exhibitions and related public programs, Asia Society provides a forum for the issues and viewpoints reflected in both traditional and contemporary Asian art.
Asia Society and Museum
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 6:00 p.m. and Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $10, seniors $7, students $5, and free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.
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Contact: Elaine Merguerian at 212-327-9271