Culture - Mastering the Art of Arabic Calligraphy
Written by Sherrie Bakshi
Arabic calligraphy is an artistic practice originally developed as a method to preserve the Qu’ran. Over the centuries the styles and methods have been continued by every generation, not with the intent to alter the form but to continue its legacy.
Berer's journey to become an Arabic calligrapher
Those who take the journey to become calligraphers follow a strict curriculum and receive one-on-one direction from teachers who have mastered a deep understanding of the art form and its methods. One of these individuals is Josh Berer, an Arabic calligrapher based in Washington DC.
Berer's passion for Arabic calligraphy is evident upon talking to him. Growing up in the United States capital, he was exposed to Islamic art at a very early age. “My mother is a curator and art historian for the Smithsonian, and my father is a bookbinder and makes illuminated manuscripts of his poetry. Between them, there is a library of works on Islamic design, calligraphy, typesetting, paper arts, and illumination from which I drew inspiration growing up,” he says.
Berer started as a graffiti artist in high school, where the linear flow of interconnecting letters and forms relate to Arabic calligraphy. In college, he studied Arabic and Islamic art at the University of Washington. This is also where he was first exposed to Arabic calligraphy. It was as if it was a calling.
Upon graduation he was awarded a scholarship for excellence in Arabic studies, which allowed him to spend six months in Sana’a, Yemen. During these months, he continued to immerse himself in the Islamic culture, receiving private tutelage, which included advanced readings in classical Arabic grammar, Islamic law, and modern literature. He also studied Arabic calligraphy and oral poetry.
Arabic calligraphy is an art form that has existed for centuries. A calligrapher can only learn the methods from a master, and understands that they cannot perfect the art, but can only seek to come close.
Berer follows the same traditional methods that calligraphers have practised for thousands of years. Using only hand-treated materials, each piece is completed on a paper hand-dyed by him in his workshop then burnished with agate to an appropriate finish to receive the ink. The ink used is traditional soot ink that has been used in Arabic calligraphy for more than a millennium.
Berer's approach incorporates traditional and contemporary lettering styles. Zoomorphic is a contemporary style in which he creates calligraphy in the form of an animal, and one that demonstrates his unique style. His other styles include Beladi, Figural, and Massoudy.
In addition to doing custom pieces for private homes and special occasions, Berer has found a niche in the corporate world, carrying out branding work for companies that are establishing branches in the Middle East. “Companies opening branches in the region want to show that they care and understand the culture,” he says. “I work with them to create an Arabic form of their corporate identities.”
An art form that inspires
Unlike other handwriting arts, Arabic calligraphy occupies a very unique place in Islamic culture, and cannot be replicated digitally as it has been in the Western world. Like Berer, those who decide to pursue a career in Arabic calligraphy do not view it as simply a career, but a calling.
“Every generation will produce people who will continue to keep the art alive,” says Berer.
Creating the canvas
“I use only traditional, hand-treated materials in my calligraphy. The paper that I use is hand-dyed by me to a warm cream tone and then burnished with agate to an appropriate finish to receive the ink. The ink I use is traditional soot ink that has been used in Arabic calligraphy for more than a millennium. The paper is archival and the ink is lightfast.”
In addition to being an Arabic calligrapher, Berer is also a craftsman, linguist, and documentarian. To view his work or learn more about him, visit his websites at arabiccalligrapher.com orjoshberer.com
Created using the Celi (Jeli) Sulus (also called Thuluth) calligraphy style for the bespoke London publisher, The Folio Society, which reprints classic books with loving attention to detail. This piece – based on a hadith – is for the cover of Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople 1453. TheThuluth (meaning one-third) style of calligraphy is considered the most elegant and regal of the scripts, and was traditionally used in headings and titles, as opposed to body text.
A rendition of Al-Samad, The Eternal – one of the 99 holy names – on hand-marbled paper. For the borders, Josh used the Sulus calligraphy style. “I use the Sulus style when a client wants something that is both classical and stylish,” says Josh.
“We have on this Earth what makes life worth living” – quote by Palestinian Poet Laureate, Mahmoud Darwish. Created in the Kufi Mashriqi style of calligraphy.
Resembling a dalah – an Arabian coffee pot – this is a Figural rendition of the words ‘Blessed and highly favoured’. This style conforms to a specific shape, such as an animal, a circle, or a country. “Figural styles take longer to figure out, as they depend more on the inner dynamics of the phrase itself, how each letter relates to the other; how they can come together to make a cohesive and fluid design,” says Josh.
The Zoomorphic style is a contemporary one that showcases Josh’s unique abilities. In this piece, the owl rendition represents the phrase ‘Death Is Not The End’. This piece was commissioned by a client who wanted to honour her father after his passing.
Done in the Celi (Jeli) Sulus style, this piece reads as ‘World Perspective’ and was used as a film logo.
Washington DC, USA
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