Calligraphy - Interview with Ghani Alani

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Ghani Alani is an Iraqi calligrapher who was born in Bagdad in 1937, and lives in France today. As one of the great masters of contemporary calligraphy, he was awarded the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in 2009. In this interview, he explains his relation to this ancient and beautiful form of art.

“Calligraphy is the geometry of the soul.”

UNESCO: How did you discover calligraphy and go on to adopt this ancestral art as your own personal form of artistic expression?

Ghani Alani: Calligraphy is almost my entire life. I first became interested in it as a child. I had the impression that it held a sort of mystery that I must resolve. So, I started visiting my region’s heritage, the monuments of Sumer, of Mesopotamia and of the Islamic Orient. This heritage was one of the cradles of the written word, while in the Christian west, the image was proliferating. But calligraphy is about both writing and image. Unity of expression is characteristic of eastern civilization. This philosophy can be found in the work of all the great scholars, the sheikhs of our Orient – the equivalent of the Zen masters of the Far East – who believe in the unifying principle of the universe. Seen through this lens, writing becomes an art form that is perfectly proportioned and this proportion, which is present in alchemy, and even in digital technology as well as art, is expressed through the letter.

You were awarded the UNESCO-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture for your work in calligraphy and in the transmission of a culture. How do you go about your work?

The International Jury awarded me the prize because they particularly liked the way in which this art form expresses a culture. And this is what I have always strived to defend, particularly since my arrival in Europe. Fifty years ago, calligraphy did not exist in Europe. I was the first person to exhibit calligraphy pieces in Paris in 1973, at a time when the art was not even referred to as “calligraphy”, but as “the art of writing”. It was therefore natural that this written art be taught in centres where languages were taught, and I was able to integrate calligraphy workshops into programmes run by the Paris Mayor’s office. The workshops were open to artists whose work was inspired by the letter. Although I had been awarded the “ijaz”, a diploma reserved for the best pupil of a great master, I had never envisaged teaching calligraphy in Paris. I had trained as a lawyer and had written a thesis on “intellectual property”, which brought me into contact with UNESCO for the first time. However, when I was around 12 years old, I had made a promise to my master, Hashim al-Baghdadi, to continue practising calligraphy. I therefore tried to honour my promise, passing down the ijaz in turn because, by preparing others to receive it, I was able to keep an ancient art form alive.

What, in your opinion, makes Arabic calligraphy far more than an art of written forms, and one that has existed for centuries, if not millennia, while remaining a form of expression that can be constantly reinvented by artists as you do?

Once I have freed the text from its functional purpose, I turn to the aesthetic, which grants the words a further purpose, or goes perhaps beyond the words. The word “calligraphy” is formed from two Greek words: kallos, which means “beauty”, and graphein, which means “to write”. In Arabic, it is “al-khatt”, which means the line, a succession of points, themselves units of measurement. We are clearly in the realm of geometry and so, as the poet says: “calligraphy is a geometry of the soul”. When looking at a piece of calligraphy, the observer does not seek to understand the meaning of the text, but simply appreciates its aesthetic value, and what is aesthetic value if it is not the formal expression of an emotion? Calligraphy existed before the Qur’an as the Arab people are a people of the written word. A kind of competition existed in Ancient Arabia, a literary prize: writing a poem in calligraphy is a way of admiring that poem, and making them “mu’allaqāt”. Most of the poets of Arabia however did not know how to read or write, but they appreciated beauty. Imrū’ al-Qays for example, when talking of vestiges from the past, said that writing left behind a trace. Calligraphy can also express spiritual movement; the divine breath contained in every movement of a living object, like dancing, or a loping gazelle. 

How would you describe this intimate relationship you have with the art of written Arabic?

Today, there are 15,000 pieces in my workshop in Paris. My calligraphy is a poetic art: I express the letters of the alphabet, I sing the letters, as I did for example in one collection entitled the Diwân des Lettres amoureuses (“A collection of love letters”, published by Archange minotaure, 2007, editor’s note). I am transported with my letters as one is transported by a poem. This is why I transform my poems into works of art. Most of the thousands of pieces that I have in my workshop are my poems, because the poetic metre is learned in the same way, and when you enter the realm of poetry, you understand that calligraphy is not simply aesthetic, but also an emotion. Therein lays the mystery that, very early on, attracted me to this artistic universe which is like no other. Having studied the concept of “the Golden Ratio” in philosophy, I discovered that something of this order attracted the attention, over and above the form.

How do you feel about the survival of calligraphic or other forms of art, given the tragedies that are today affecting the archaeological heritage of your native region?

Calligraphy has never stopped evolving; there is a place for it even in difficult times. When Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols, calligraphy continued to exist, to evolve and to develop, notably through printing, mechanization and digital technology. When the Muslim religion spread from the gates of China as far as Andalusia, calligraphy reinvented itself, as it did in Persia. Writing evolves according to its context, its culture etc. I have no doubt then that, even though all the darkest forces are trying to destroy the culture and heritage of today’s Iraq, the positive forces will be great enough to see art rise from the rubble, art as the essential expression of the living.

Khalil Khalsi

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