Some Modest Proposals for Islamic Artists


Several years ago, one of the big British auction houses had an auction of calligraphy in Doha, Qatar. My agent wanted me to participate, so we chose a large composition in celi sulus. It was neither overpriced or underpriced but hit a happy medium. Hasan Celebi also had a piece in this auction—I was in good company. The collection being auctioned included some older works, some “huruf”-ist work, and pieces by Hasan Hoca and myself. The collection was curated by the auction house, by people who were not educated in “our” arts, historical or contemporary. They did, however, have strong opinions on what is “good” and “bad” and what is “saleable.”


I learned a lot about the international market for Arabic-script calligraphy. It was what is called a learning experience. The long and short of it is that neither Hasan Hoca’s work nor mine was sold. A not-so-important pre-Yesari murakkaa in talik script sold for an enormous price, and the hurufi works did really well, racking up astounding figures, way beyond the hopes of any classic-style calligraphers.


Let’s be realistic.


Around 1999, I began to think about the situation of calligraphers in terms of gaining respect and making a living. How does this relate to the issues we calligraphers face vis-à-vis the Western art world? Let me state a few of these issues:


Obviously, no matter where we live and work, our art emerges from a zone of conflict. OK. We can’t change that, but we have to recognize it.


We face economic issues. We have to sell work if we plan—or need—to make a living at it. There are a lot of silly notions about art for art’s sake, but these are perpetrated by dewy-eyed idealists or by hard-nosed dealers and curators who thrive on this mythology. Then there is the question of whether calligraphy, ebru (marbling), and tezhib (illumination) are arts or merely crafts. And there are issues of finding and satisfying customers.


Issues like these are essentially outside the training and practice of being a calligrapher, yet like it or not, we have to face them.


I come from the far west of the United States, California, and live near the nation’s capital. I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S. but have traveled quite a bit. In my experience, the U.S. and Europe have highly functional, organically developed art worlds in which agents, galleries, museums, critics, and collectors all play a part. I have been involved in the American art scene for over 50 years, as an outsider practicing a kind of outsider art. Most people here and in Europe, even well-meaning people, cannot relate to this kind of art—the art of words, word forms, and letter forms—in a language they don’t understand. Latin-script calligraphers suffer the same attitudes, but for different reasons. The calligraphy of Japan, Korea, and China has a robust art market, but customers for Asian calligraphy have little or no affinity for Arabic-script and Latin-script calligraphy. The stories of our great masters don’t resonate with most Westerners or Asians, and the religious content of much of our work is especially jarring to them.


That said, the situation is by no means hopeless. In fact, it is full of potential for calligraphers who are adaptable enough to both ride the wave and stay ahead of it, as in surfing.


The best step those of you who are calligraphers and artists can take is to develop a relationship with an agent to represent your work in the art/museum world. Museums—even small ones—are great places to get exposure. In the U.S., unlike in some Muslim countries, it is next to impossible to get your work in museums and galleries by yourself unless you pay to show in a vanity gallery. It can take years to organize and schedule an exhibit in a good venue, but if they are done well, such exhibits can be very successful.


A case in point is “Letters in Gold,” the Sabanci Collection, which showed in some of the best and biggest museums in America and Europe, including the Metropolitan in New York. It succeeded because of careful preparation, especially by the eminent calligraphy scholar Ugur Derman. Not only was this exhibit hugely appreciated and wildly applauded in reviews, but it is still being talked about. Most important, “Letters in Gold” raised the Western public’s estimation of and respect for the art and its culture. This was due partly to the beauty and workmanship of the art itself, but also to the presentation of the works as part of the world art continuum.


The exhibition set a standard. It was the pinnacle of exposure of Islamic/Ottoman calligraphy in America and Europe. Ugur Bey produced a landmark book on the exhibit that is still collected. In essence, everyone who spent some time with the show loved it, so it became the standard by which the aspirations of Islamic artists can be realized and inspired.


Of course, exhibitions like “Letters in Gold” are not commercial exhibits that offer works for sale. So let me cut to the chase: What do we want to do with our art, what do we want to accomplish?


Let me go back for a moment to some of my own experiences and observations before getting practical.


For 50 years and more, I have been reading the Arabic sources—Ibnul Bawwab, Kalkeshendi, Tashkopruszade, Ziftavi, and many more, and of course, for the modern developments, Mustakimzade, Inal, Mahmud Yazir, Ugur Bey, etc. These works give me a sketchy but thought-provoking picture of how these great calligraphers existed—their daily lives, work habits, occupations, successes and failures, and life difficulties. What a miracle it was that the calligrapher’s art developed at all—not to mention how it continuously evolved and became what we have today. So we have these texts to help us understand and to answer our questions, and then we have the “fossil record,” so to speak—actual calligraphic works we can study and use as the basis for theories that are apart from legends and fantasy. This fossil record cannot be washed, or wished, away.


These studies have been priceless for me. I had studied on my own for 22 years but ran into too many roadblocks and obstacles. Thanks to IRCICA and its first director, Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, I have been able to work with the real masters of our age, Hasan Celebi and the late Dr. Ali Alparslan, Allah rahmet eylesin. With them the road opened and I was able to move forward. This was my introduction to the method of Seyh Hamdullah; I still make new discoveries.


Reading these writers exposed me to the work of some great intellectuals from the heart of Islamic culture. We simply cannot ignore them—Ibnul Bawwab, Kalkeshendi, Mustakimzade, Inal, the Yazir brothers, and many others. To read them in the original is a literary thrill. These works are by any measure exciting, revealing stories of discovery and awakening.


And they awaken us to the function of visual arts in classic Muslim societies. If we can, without romance or fantasy, understand what our artistic predecessors achieved, we can begin to try to answer some of the questions of today.


We have to ask, were at least some of the calligraphers artists in the sense we understand the word today? Did they perhaps bear some resemblance to such European masters of painting as Titian, La Tour, or Hogarth?


How did the calligraphers survive economically? How did they make a living? How did they get enough time to make so much high-end work?


Did they have help—servants, apprentices? Did they have horses? Who took care of the horses? Who cooked their meals, made their bed, did the laundry, did the dishes and cleaned their houses? (I bet I know that—their wives!)


Did they sell their work? We know they did take commissions. By what agencies or arrangements did they design the masterpieces that were built into architectural settings?


What was the so-called art world like in these circumstances?


If you accept, as I do, that Istanbul was the Camelot of Islamic calligraphy in the 19th century up to 1920 or so, we must ask the most dramatic question: How, in 19th-century Istanbul, with the Devlet-i Aliye in a state of constant disassembly and disturbance, with refugees pouring in day after day, fires, plagues, riots, etc.—events that would have destroyed most other countries—how did people maintain this calligraphic culture and produce the finest, most exciting and inspiring works of calligraphic art the world has seen before or since?


I ponder these sorts of questions because they do relate to our modern situation. I can never answer the questions adequately. Easy answers abound—many people provide them, but I sense their answers are wrong. A few examples of this nonsense in its grossest form are the so-called explanations of Muslim art: the horror vacui of Muslims; their avoidance of figural drawing and painting; and the idea that Muslim artists always intentionally include a flaw in their work so as not to compete with the Creator. The situation is deeper and more complex, but if we try to understand, at least a bit of light will shine into the corridors of our minds.


In a way, this is why I write talik and celi talik. To do them well is essentially impossible for me. I maintain no hope. I know I will never make a piece that will be acceptable. And yet I do it, I write works that will be understood as poor, and yet I do it, to try to understand talik and its genesis with the two Yesaris. And perhaps to understand something about them and their world.




Through imaginary exercises such as these I try to understand what the term Islamic calligraphy can mean today, in a time so different from the periods when calligraphy took shape—a time that lives only in literature and memory. The questions we ask about the great calligraphers and tezhip artists we must also, in a new way, ask about ourselves:


How do we learn and teach?


How do we produce genuine work?


Is our work making artifacts in reality or virtuality?


How do we expose and sell our work?


How do we choose texts, and in what language?


How do we—or can we—find a larger, international audience for what we are doing now?


How do we, in a nice and dignified way, educate our audience and future customers?


How do we deal with customers who want to micromanage our work?


Do we exist in a bubble, as if time and place do not matter?


Or do we spread out beyond our comfortable borders and move into areas that are not very welcoming now?


I write all this just to get it on paper (or, in this case, online). I know those of you who are calligraphers and artists are trying to find solutions to these issues every day, and that you exert yourselves to the utmost extent, often with no encouragement, to develop your work and your place in the calligraphic culture. You persist. A new clientele is developing now, but slowly, and new approaches to criticism are in the works, to build a new, modern, international calligraphy culture.


Personally, I have been very fortunate. After a slow start, I had so much encouragement and support that I cannot now say “I made this” or “I made that,” but rather, “I had help all along the way,” in the form of encouragement and moral support— especially, and from a few, real insight as to what art is. I rubbed along in calligraphy and other arts reasonably well. Then, in 2001, I met Suleyman Cooke, a major player in the U.S. art world who became my agent, and we developed my exposure and sales. The market for Arabic-script calligraphy is difficult at present, but we keep trying. So, no matter how things turn out for me, I always say to my students, “Work hard. This is an art so full of vitality that no matter how hard it is, it will always fill you with your own vitality.”


Something that is now lacking will open doors for us in the art world, and that something is criticism. True criticism is an absolute must. It ensures the preservation of the highest standards. It keeps the artist aware of his or her true abilities. Real criticism is not a journalist who says, “This is beautiful,” or even an art historian who says (often mistakenly), “This was done by so-and-so at this date in this particular script or style.”


Real criticism is the work of people who are so deeply into the art that they find a vocabulary to tell us about what we are doing and then tell our audiences about our work, its high points and low points, its originality, its creativity, its failure of concept, its inappropriateness, and on and on. When people have access through the media to genuine criticism of this kind—rather than the hyperbole or platitudes of museums, art galleries, and auction houses—calligraphers and other artists can develop our art to higher degrees of expression and content. If we can bring this kind of attention and care to our own work, we will find acceptance and respect in the art world, albeit as a kind of separate species.


Rather than being exotic, living museum exhibits, we need to bring the concept of what it means to be modern to our very classic arts, yet preserve and maintain its special originality and quality and its relation to the continuum of Islamic practices.




From my experience and observation, I am confident that studying with the great living hacegan in calligraphy and the historical predecessors, we will see the emergence of new Seyh Hamdullahs, new Hafiz Osmans, new Mamud Yazirs. An inspiring start has been made in Istanbul, and now, with the guidance of IRCICA, we should take the long view for centuries of advancement of the art. We come here from all over the world to learn and participate. For aspiring calligraphers, this is the threshold of hope.


This presentation/essay is my artistic vasiyetname, my umitname, as well as my arz-i sukran, my varak-i mihr-u vefa.


Posted on the Al-Madina Institute blog, December 2, 2014