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Shirin Neshats Origin Of Calligraphy English Literature Essay

Calligraphy has its origins in China and began with the beautiful writing of the Chinese. The word calligraphy has originated from Greek kallos meaning ‘beauty’ and graphe meaning ‘writing’ [1] . The calligraphic mark refers to the expressive mark that is made in art. A contemporary definition of calligraphic practice is "the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious and skilful manner" (Mediavilla 1996: 18) [2] . This is a recognized form of art that is practiced by diverse cultures. It has turned into a form of visual art itself, an art of the hand.

In fine art practice calligraphy does not only refer to the traditional style, but includes hand lettered inscriptions and modern typography. In fine art pieces and designs calligraphy might take on a form where it is stripped to its bare form of the expressive mark. This crude form may not come across as a calligraphic work of art to the inexperienced eye. These works may contain calligraphy which serves as an abstract expression as it overtakes the legibility of the written work. In Fine Art practice calligraphy is used at times as a narrative or illustrative but can also add a sense of mystery to the works of artists such Cy Twombly.

Calligraphy in fine art practice

Calligraphy has flourished in different cultures and languages. Arabic calligraphy is closely coupled with the religious texts, i.e. from the Quran. Calligraphic works served as a means to preserve the Quranic verses and texts. Furthermore as Islam forbade figurative drawing, Islamic followers flourished in calligraphic works. Since Arabic is the language prevalent amongst the Islamic followers, works containing Arabic calligraphy naturally automate a sense of the sacred. Sacredness, or sanctity, is in general the state of being holy (perceived by religious individuals as associated with the divine) or sacred (considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas) [3] 

Japanese calligraphy (Shodo) is also associated with philosophy and hence also holds a level of sacredness. It’s an ancient art and has originated from China. It differs in that its main focuses are simplicity, beauty, and, most importantly, a mind-body connection. Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) believed that true creativity is not the product of consciousness but rather the "phenomenon of life itself." True creation, he stated, must arise from mu-shin, the state of "no mind", in which thought, emotions, and expectations do not matter. [4] Thus we see that calligraphy in different scripts and forms signify sacredness.

Photograph

Why I chose to look at Shirin Neshat’s calligraphy

Having worked extensively with calligraphy in my own studio practice I have investigated and been highly influenced by the works of Shirin Neshat. I have chosen to closely look at Shirin Neshat’s calligraphic work because of the way she has incorporated it into her artwork. Although she uses images that are strikingly linked to Islamic and Arabian culture, I further want to investigate the function of the calligraphic mark in her fine art practice. Since the script is only familiar to her Farsi speaking spectators, I truly want to look at the purpose of her using the text, whether it was to bring out a sense of the sacred. Although I am familiar with the Arabic script (attained from reading the Quran) which is the same as the Farsi/Persian script that is employed in Shirin Neshat’s work, I do not understand the meaning of the words. This further led me to question sacredness. From the earlier definition above we can perceive it to be something closely related to religion. Something associated with theology. For calligraphy to be called sacred, the meaning of the writing/writings would have to hold some kind of sacred significance. However when the calligraphy in question is written in another script, the context and the subject matter comes into question. Hence it was important to first understand Shirin Neshat’s background and what stimulated her work.

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957 [5] and later moved to California at the age of 17 to study ‘Studio Arts’ at the University of California, Berkeley. After her brief return to Iran in 1990 she found that the Islamic revolution had completely changed the political and cultural set up of the nation, people were expected to largely associate every aspect of their lives with Islam. She was deeply influenced by the condition of the country and this initiated her series of photographic work and short video film installations like ‘Unveiling’, ‘Women of Allah’, ‘Turbulent’, ‘Mahdokht’, ‘Zarin’ [6] and others. Due to the sensitive subject matter that Shirin Neshat’s work address; it has invoked many controversies and has resulted in her being banned from Iran. These works not only focussed on the condition of women in Iran after the Islamic revolution but also with Muslim women involved in violence and politics. It can be interpreted that her work revolves around the hardships and obstacles Muslim women face being born into suppressed societies which do not grant them the same freedom that is given to the males of same society. Her works mostly consist of opposing ideas and motifs juxtaposed such as black against white, woman with man, peace and violence. These contrasts served to bring out the differences and conflicts within the subject matter. Even in her short film installations like Rapture (1999) she implemented a dual screen projection drawing on contrasts using black and white imagery. talk about the picture here Photograph

An article that talks about Shirin Neshat’s stance on her own work states that: Although it was this personal experience of radical change from a fairly Westernized to a thoroughly Islamicized country that induced the artist to create her images, these images are not only the means by which she negotiates her own identity. The images also address the identity of Iranian and Muslim women at large; this is evidenced by the fact that Neshat speaks of the subjects in the resulting work as “she” and not as “I.” [7] 

She was trying to convey not just her views but a general state of mind perhaps, an identity that was forced upon all Muslim women under an extreme Islamic rule, but rather than give us an account of her experience; she reflected these ‘views’ through a variety of forms within her works: characters such as the young Muslim prostitute, Zarin from ‘Zarin’ (2005), Mahdokht, a woman who is metaphorically represented to be infatuated with fertility however "Mahdokht" features an almost surreal ambiguity, though it refers to an infertile civilization in search of revitalization - here in the image of a woman (Mahdokht) obsessed by fertility. [8] Furthermore through the address of the subject as ‘she’ it reflects perhaps a sense of separation she feels being exiled from her own country, as any individual separated from their motherland would have a sense of a dual identity, causing her to almost stand and watch the subject from a distance.

Use of the calligraphic mark in Shirin Neshat’s work

Her photographic self portraits such as the one above have been taken by a photographer but conceptualized by herself. She later adds the calligraphy onto the work using ink. As can be seen in the photograph Shirin Neshat makes use of the generic black clothed Muslim women in most of her photography. The calligraphy creates a presence of its own. The addition of calligraphy into her photographs was to perhaps show a direct link between religion and society. We can see that the text has been laid onto only those parts of the body that Muslim women conventionally chose to show such as the hand, foot and face. The use of the text itself and the effect it produces can be interpreted in a number of ways. An article states that: Through photographs and videos Shirin Neshat has since been showing the gulf between the wealth of Persian culture on the one hand and the narrow restraints of everyday life in the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other, a gulf which critics have yet to explore in depth. Her series of photographs "Women of Allah" (1993-97) appeared in galleries in New York and Europe and brought her fame, and since 1998 her video-installations have appeared in museums all round the world; but till she took part in a group exhibition in the French Institute in Morocco in 2001, her works had never been seen within the borders of Islam and had mostly been reviewed in the West. There the calligraphy on the faces, soles and hands of her photographed women had been appreciated as decoration but not as lines from contemporary poetesses writing in Farsi, her mother tongue. Only when the photographs have reached both cultures will their meaning fully unfold. [9] 

Although the script may remain unfamiliar to a majority of the spectators considering the fact that it has mostly been reviewed in the west , for it to be stated as being ‘appreciated as decoration’ would be a sweeping statement. Shirin Neshat’s calligraphic mark does come across more than just decoration. I don’t think it is necessary to able to read the text to think of it as sacred. Since the Persian or Farsi language shares its script with Arabic (in which the ‘Quran’ is written in) there seems to be an automatic question of whether the text is from the ‘Quran’. Furthermore her subject matter is also clad in a conservative manner, the traditional black chadors which are a part of the Arab world, the praying positions they take and the other motifs are very much part of the Arab world. Thus we can see that the context also plays an important part in determining whether the calligraphy appears to be sacred. An important question here would be one’s idea of ‘decoration’. ‘Graphic decoration’ in the form of text can be considered as a form of typography. Typography is the art and technique of arranging type, type design, and modifying type glyphs. [10] Thus we can see that typography in itself is a different form of art. An example of graphic decoration can be seen below: Photograph

However Shirin Neshat's calligraphy is not merely intended to beautify the picture, but to convey a meaning to the audience. Its purpose is lost if we consider it to be purely ornamental. Furthermore the verses inscribed on the face, hands and feet of the women in the photographs are written by Iranian female poets. B. Schwabsky, a critic states that: the Farsi verses […] obscure the surfaces of many of the photographs, often further ‘veiling’ Neshat’s face, hands or feet. Though promising legibility, these signs are unintelligible to most Westerners and thus draw our attention to the areas that they cover while continuing to screen them from us”. [11] Although the calligraphy remains indecipherable to the western community the interpretation of language acting as a ‘veil’ cannot be accepted entirely because language in all forms including text is traditionally used to convey a message or thought rather than to conceal. For the calligraphy to act like a screen, further veiling, doesn’t comply with the intention of the literature being used.

Shirin Neshat had a purpose for using these selected texts: this feminist poetry acts like a medium which provides a voice to the characters, almost like an expressive medium for those whose voices go unheard. In the ‘Women of Allah’ series Shirin Neshat mostly depicts Muslim women alongside guns consequently conveying a sense of violence perhaps symbolising the oppression the women in context face but at the same time symbolising their resentment which can be considered to fuel a sense of hostility. A comment made by Shirin Neshat sheds light on the sentiments of the women in the photograph “I took on the role of those women who fought in the revolution. […] Women who were so committed to their religion that they were able to sacrifice their freedom and material lives to promote something larger than themselves” [12] . Shirin Neshat seems to be fascinated by these women for their beliefs and strengths and has hence used calligraphy strategically to serve as a voice for the women in the photography. The writings are from the Iranian poetess Tahereh Saffarzadeh who believed in the supreme power of Islam and supported the Islamic revolution. Her poetry collection Allegiance with Wakefulness [13] was written during the time of and after the Islamic revolution. She disapproved Western ideologies and spoke against them through her poetry. Shirin Neshat has also titled one of her works ‘allegiance with wakefulness’ from the ‘Women of Allah’ series. Thus we see that the calligraphy she used was a vital part of the meaning of the work itself. Furthermore we can interpret that the women in the photograph only choose to show those body parts that they think appropriate within the religion. In her ‘unveiling’ series Shirin Neshat has used text from a radical Iranian poetess, Forugh Farrokhzad, well known for standing up to Muslim society’s traditional values through her poems. She addressed themes associated with the female body, love, lust and other subjects considered to be a ‘taboo’ at the time. Shirin Neshat’s use of such controversial text again adds dimensions to her work, giving a voice to the women. The opening of Forugh Farrokhzad’s poem has been inscribed in Shirin Neshat’s work ‘offered eyes’.

While examining the use of calligraphy in the works of Cy Twombly to that of Shirin Neshat’s we can see that it has been used in a completely different way, showing us the alternatives of the calligraphic mark itself. Cy Twombly is an American artist born in 1928. Acknowledged for his paintings and drawings worldwide he mostly works large scale. His paintings comprise of largely gray, tan and of-white backgrounds at times containing an illegible scribble or intangible calligraphy. His calligraphy takes on an expressive form of art in his work. Not all his works containing calligraphy strike you as words the first time you look at it, this mysterious like quality is brought about by the style of calligraphy he employs. Although the script he uses to adorn his works with is the English alphabet, the expressive nature overtakes the legibility of the written in a number of his works.

Twombly in an interview with curator Nicholas Serota talks about his calligraphy: Graffiti is linear and it's done with a pencil, and it's like writing on walls. But [in my paintings] it's more lyrical. In those beautiful early paintings like Academy, it's graffiti but it's something else, too. I don't know how people react, but the feeling is more complicated, more elaborate. Graffiti is usually a protest - ink on walls - or has a reason for being naughty or aggressive. [14] 

After having looked at some of his works with the calligraphic mark I tried to think of a reason for his use of calligraphy.

The handwriting is fairly legible in the above painting and reads ‘Wilder shores of love’. There also seems to be a mention of two dates: ‘Aug 29 1984’ and ‘June 21 1985’. He refers to his use of calligraphy as ‘lyrical’ an

Later, many of his paintings and works on paper moved into "romantic symbolism", and their titles can be interpreted visually through shapes and forms and words. Twombly often quoted the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as many classical myths and allegories in his works. Examples of this are his Apollo and The Artist and a series of eight drawings consisting solely of inscriptions of the word "VIRGIL" [15] 

As a result of my research on Shirin Neshat’s work it is clear that the understanding of the calligraphy plays a major role in whether it can be conceived as something sacred or not. Since the script remains unfamiliar to a majority of the community who have access to view Shirin Neshat’s works, it does finally come down to an individual level, whether one sees it as spiritual, decorative or as a medium through which the subject matter is given a voice.

On a personal level I do consider it to create a sense of the sacred; relating it to the script of the Quran. Moreover, after understanding the meaning of the calligraphy that is used in her works, a new dimension and meaning

With the photographic work, I always found a danger of falling into didactic imagery. Also, since I was applying text [Farsi calligraphy] over the photos, there often came the problem of translation.

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