When tasked with creating an alphabet for a design class, senior Erin Meekhof began by researching the origins of alphabets that already exist. She was surprised to find that two superficially dissimilar ones, Latin and Arabic, share a common root, and decided to explore the connection through art.
The resulting installation project, Abjad, was recently recognized as the winning entry in the 2014 Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award. Named after a husband-and-wife team known for their grandly scaled conceptual art, and presented jointly by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute and the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation, the award funds proposed art projects that creatively use public exhibition spaces in the UAE.
"I think [the judges] liked how located Abjad is in the UAE," said Meekhof. "English and Arabic are the two major languages here, at least visibility-wise."
Abjad is a collection of symbols that blend different representations of shared phonemes. Each symbol grows out of a Proto-Semitic pictogram, moving into the Phoenician character. From there it splits into two branches: one branch consists of the Etruscan symbol and the modern Roman character it became, while the other traces the development of the Arabic character through Aramaic and Nabataean.
Meekhof invented symbols for sixteen shared phonemes between Arabic and the Roman alphabets. She then turned one of these symbols, /l/, into a free-standing sculpture two meters high. The sculpture, made of plywood and painted solid black, is an elegant mix of angles and curves that culminates in the Roman el on one side, and the Arabic lam on the other.
With the funding from the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, Meekhof will create plywood sculptures for four more phonemes. The sculptures will then tour the UAE and be exhibited in different environments, including art parks and the desert.
Meekhof’s project was selected from 27 entries, and was selected for its originality, multidisciplinary nature, and scope of research. Her work will be unveiled on March 16, 2014, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival Education Programme, and will tour locations throughout the UAE.
"Every display environment will be a different experience," says Meekhof. "It'll change how you see them, how you interact with them."
Meekhof, who began her college career as a biology major, first became interested in visual art when she took the class Designing Abu Dhabi during her sophomore year. "I was really intrigued by the way you can use visual design to communicate so many abstract things or ideas," she recalls. "Design at its core is about communication and I just fell in love with it."
Adding a major in visual art, Meekhof will continue to draw on her science background for projects. Design, she says, combines the research and problem-solving of scientific inquiry with the intuitive and aesthetic approaches of the fine arts.
Abjad exemplifies this process. "I always approach my projects with a very strong sense of research," says Meekhof. "What these letters look like, and what time periods they were in, how they developed … if you tell it well, it becomes very beautiful."