Joumana Medlej is a British-Lebanese artist best known for her work with early Arabic calligraphy: the ”Kufi" scripts. Her deep connection to this tradition was awakened during the years she assisted a master calligrapher in his Beirut workshop. Since then, she has been dedicated to reviving the long-disused styles of this large family, along with the art materials and personal discipline surrounding them.
Rooted in the origins, her own contemporary use of Kufi is imbued with the reverence and mystery that characterise the devotional creations of those early years. Joumana also teaches Kufi scripts in London, and writes about early Islamic art technology.
We talk to Joumana about reviving traditional, cosmology and the future of Arabic calligraphy.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and your journey to becoming an artist?
My childhood was defined by war. I won’t dwell on that, but in the absence of school, electricity or phones, my sole entertainment most days was to tune into my own imagination and make things. I found that my creative power could take me to a place that was entirely untouched by outer events and that I could bring some of that back out into the world. Most of my journey since then has been acquiring the techniques to do this faithfully and removing from myself whatever could interfere with this process.
How does your Arabic calligraphy connects to your cultural heritage?
I don’t believe it does except very broadly, in that it originates in the general region. Lebanon wasn’t ever known as a special centre for Arabic calligraphy (unlike typography), and it was a dying craft here (not even an art) when I started out. I grew up only seeing it in mass-produced devotional prints, the same designs plastered everywhere. It was cheap and uninspiring and there was certainly not the slightest creative spark left in it (things have changed now). The early calligraphy tradition in particular, which I practice, died out centuries ago and only really survives to a degree in the Maghrebi tradition, and the most I can say is it was born not too far geographically, in Palestine. But I mention this knowing that claiming culture via geography is a bit of a joke and invites cultural appropriation. How it connects to my story is in the way I share the ethos and self-denying training of those early calligraphers, and have been dedicated to it for many years now.
Our God and your God is one
You specialise in the ancient Kufi script, how did you learn this traditional artform?
I was introduced to it during my years of working alongside my teacher, but I properly learned its original forms by closely examining manuscripts and inscriptions, as well as learning about codicology. As there is no surviving chain of teaching for these scripts, anybody practicing it today is working with a revival version, either their own or someone else’s. This being the case I’m only interested in learning directly from the source. This is an ongoing process I’ve been absorbed in for over a decade; you can learn everything from the script itself, if you really look and don’t let the later styles condition your observations. Reviving the original materials, which I also do from period texts, helps to complete the picture as the script is not separate from its materiality.
In the Beginning
How does your work connect to cosmology?
Some of it does this directly as I made a series of pieces that are conceptual visual maps of the heavens and how different spheres (material and transcendental) relate to each other, based on medieval Islamic cosmology. In a more general way, my work is not a commentary on the world but always looks through it back to the reality behind all things, a larger space that puts our human affairs in perspective. This is why I use words – pure meaning – rather than iconography, and Kufi scripts in particular which at their root are based on geometry rather than on the movement of the human hand: Geometry is not subjective. You don’t make it up, you just reveal it. When you construct a design on geometric principles, every part of it is related to the whole and it is a microcosmos, echoing the way every part of the universe is related to the whole, and it’s all really One.
In the Beginning
You create your own pigments, why is this important to your creative process?
When I work with store-bought materials, I feel like I’ve skipped half of the creative process to rush to the final product. Making the materials takes the creative act to its source: the raw gifts of the Earth. By turning minerals and plants into usable colours, we effect an alchemical transformation that brings together heaven and earth (human consciousness into matter). I don’t throw the word “alchemical” around lightly, it applies fully here because I am myself transformed by the patient physical labour involved. It’s not enough for me to just create an image. The world is stuffed with images and most of them are empty, just visual noise. For me, creating has to be an authentic offering of self so that it’s not just more noise – and then the final product doesn’t matter. I can rip it into pieces and feel no loss, because the complete journey that was the making of the work was itself the offering, and the finished piece is only the footprint of that.
How did you create such an identifiable unique artistic style?
By not trying to. It took shape organically from work to work, and it’s still evolving. I just focus on capturing the right feel for each piece and don’t worry about how the style comes out.
Does your audience need to understand Arabic when they view your work?
Not at all, in fact they are more likely to enjoy it as it was meant to be if they don’t. Arabic speakers tend to try and read the words, so instead of experiencing the artwork as an image of contemplation holding a meaning, they try to extract information from it like it’s a newspaper. You can’t see and read at the same time. In this sense, literacy is an obstacle to properly experiencing calligraphic art.
As well as works on paper, you create wall sculptures. Can you tell us more about your vision and concept around this?
The wall sculptures came about because I wanted to immerse the viewer in the piece, and a frame with glass was an obstacle to that. I made many pieces that could be hung up directly without frame, but they necessarily still had a background that created a virtual frame. Wall sculptures allow me to pop everything directly onto the wall, as if growing directly out of it, and this removes all mediation between the work and the viewer.
Who are your favourite artists and where do you find inspiration?
Nature, the cosmos, and anything beautiful give me the desire to create. I can’t accurately say I find inspiration, it’s more a case of inspiration finding me, usually when I least expect it. I don’t think I can name favourite artists other than my teacher Samir Sayegh, there are too many across too many genres, past and present. At the moment Joseph Cornell is at the front of my mind because I’m focusing on making Treasure Boxes, which is another thread of my work that has nothing to do with calligraphy!
Love is a Madman
What has been the most memorable reaction to one of your works?
When I exhibited “Heavenly Spheres” in 2015, one person came up to say “I’m an atheist, but I can feel the spirituality emanating from this.”
Are any of your calligraphy works inspired specifically by the Islamic art tradition?
I have recently made a complete series directly based on Quranic manuscripts from the 9th to 12th centuries featuring different Kufi scripts. Not only that, I used the original materials including such tricky aspects as dyeing parchment with indigo. It would be difficult to get any closer than that!
What are your thoughts on the future of Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art?
Right now, it’s simultaneously exciting to see new creativity bringing these fields into a new era, and worrying to see some parties trying to claim them as their own for nationalistic or gatekeeping purposes. It’s also dispiriting to see a lot of shallow or mediocre work promoted just because these traditions are suddenly trendy in circles that ignored them for a long time. There is a delicate balance that needs to be kept for historical arts to genuinely thrive: continuously breathe new life into them, while remaining rooted in the tradition. Lose the tradition and you’re just playing about with no connection to anything real, but be too obsessed with tradition and you reduce the art to a stiff, dead thing. But I feel there’s an increasing number of artists who intuitively know this, and the future is in good hands.
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