Mastering the Art of Arabic Calligraphy

Arabic Calligraphy

Arabic calligraphy is difficult to master. It requires precise control of the hand: like a surgeon with his knife, the calligrapher must carve perfectly into the paper — a technique recently discovered by students in NYUAD's Visual Arts class, Types of Art.

The course, which examined Western and Arabic versions of typefaces, and followed the stories of the type masters who have shaped our visual typographical landscapes, included a series of workshops devoted to the art of Arabic calligraphy, which were held at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Tourism. Housed within the National Theater is the calligraphy studio of Mohammed Mandi, the state calligrapher of the UAE.

Despite their different backgrounds, the members of the class each came to appreciate the perfection in calligraphy. Realizing this perfection in Latin-based typography, the main interest of Types of Art was simple by this point. But observing the passion Mandi displayed during the workshops led to the realization of the beauty of this art.

For freshman Salah Rouhani, the most significant realization was that so many cultures could be brought together by this type of art. "As I sat in the back of the classroom overlooking the entire class immersed in the art of calligraphy in a language they didn't understand, I saw a true example of what art can do for humanity," he said. "It can truly bring people together from different backgrounds in a harmonious atmosphere." As Mandi explained, "Calligraphy is an art of the soul, and it is the hand which gives it its voice."

Calligraphy is an art of the soul, and it is the hand which gives it its voice.

Mohammed Mandi, state calligrapher of the UAE

Goffredo Puccetti, NYUAD visiting professor of Design and Visual Communication, was an enthusiast of the outcomes of the calligraphy workshops. "The idea of integrating a calligraphy workshop into the course came from a suggestion by Mo Ogrodnik, the associate dean of Arts at NYUAD," Puccetti explained. "It was a brilliant idea and I owe a big debt of gratitude to Emirati artist Wasel Sawfan who made it possible when he introduced me to Mohammed Mandi. It has been a privilege to be part of this class, even if I must confess that I was by far the worst apprentice."

By the last lesson, Mandi was impressed by the ability of many of the students and praised the work of freshman Luka Vasilij as that of a master in nuce of the discipline, "while I had not even mastered the 'alif!" Puccetti exclaimed. He continued, "It is great to know that, thanks to the kindness and hospitality of Mohammed Mandi and Sawsan Khamis of the Authority for Culture and Tourism, we are going to continue the amazing journey into Arabic calligraphy in the fall."

Mandi plays an unusual role for a professional calligrapher. As freshman George Hung explained, "Few masters will dedicate their time to teach beginners, but Mandi is very different. From how Mandi teaches us, I can feel the passion [he] has towards calligraphy and his eagerness to continue the heritage of Arabic calligraphy." By the class' second visit to Mandi's workshop, each member of the class, the professor included, had received a pen, an inkwell, ink, and a calligraphy pad.

Because Mandi speaks little English, for the non-Arabic-speaking members of the class, the workshop offered a challenge. However, beyond the understanding of the language, the understanding of the letterforms, in their elegance, was of overarching importance. Freshman Jeffrey Chen, describing his perception of these new, foreign characters, said, "Arabic writing can stack and combine letters together in unorthodox ways compared to the Latin languages, and you get a writing style that definitely takes years to master."

Freshman Arfa Rehman, who has some knowledge of Arabic, said, "Whenever I have written Arabic in the past, I have kind of scribbled it across the page without paying much attention to the form of the letters I was writing. I never really appreciated the patience, diligence, and artistry that goes into writing these letters properly."