02 August 2012
The work of a master Chinese calligrapher is wowing Harvard in an exhibit titled âArabic Islamic Calligraphy in the Chinese Tradition: Works by Master Haji Noor Deen.â
Haji Noor Deen's singular Arabic Islamic calligraphy in the Chinese style is being hosted by Harvard's Center for Government and International Studies. The exhibit is sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.
Arabic and Chinese work hand-in-hand in these works. Tilt your head to the left and a Chinese character for âpeaceâ gives way to a cursive Arabic salaam â but even those who do not read either language can appreciate the beauty of Noor Deen's work.
The Chinese and Arabic calligraphic traditions have often been compared as the two of the world's finest manifestations of the written word, but never likened; indeed, they are at once opposites and complements. When combined the result is an artistic piece that is a work of incredibly unique beauty, and a testimony to man's synthesizing genius.
âHis calligraphy has a boldness about it, and at the same time a gentleness to it, that really conveys the sense of divine power and at the same time, beauty, grace, and subtlety,â said Elizabeth Lee-Hood, a Ph.D. student who studies Islamic devotion. âThere is a sweep of the brush strokes that combines simplicity with a sense of encompassing scope.â
Noor Deen uses a soft brush to make long, evocative strokes that echo the sentiment of the passages represented.
âIn the phrases that are actually prayers calling out to God â as in O! Gracious One!' â you see an upward sweep as if an upward reach of the human heart to God,â said Lee-Hood.
Noor Deen's free and fluid style is evident in his diverse representations of the Bismillah, a phrase that prefaces many passages of the Quran and precedes many daily activities for Muslims, and a popular calligraphic motif. In some pieces, the artist writes the phrase with a single brush stroke, as the devotee utters it with a single breath. In another piece the phrase hovers over the word âGodâ in the shape of a pictogram of a man kneeling in prayer.
Although Islam has a long history in China, few Westerners know much of the community or its rich artistic tradition.
âUnfortunately, there is very little written in English and other Western languages about Chinese Islamic calligraphy, making the visit of Haji Noor Deen and the exhibition very special,â said Professor Ali Asani, director of the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.
Noor Deen strives to make his work accessible, giving demonstrations at schools and community centers across the world.
Harvard's history of showcasing Islamic art dates at least as far back as 1945, when the Fogg Art Museum displayed âTreasures from the Islamic World.â The current exhibit promises to be more inviting, displaying the calligraphy much as it would be displayed in private homes and prayer spaces across the Muslim world.
To Krystina Friedlander, co-curator of the exhibit and program assistant at the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program, the work and outreach of Noor Deen perfectly fit the program's mission.
âShowcasing a Chinese artist helps open people's eyes to the massive diversity in the Muslim world,â said Friedlander.
âArabic Islamic Calligraphy in the Chinese Tradition: Works by Master Haji Noor Deenâ will be on exhibit through 20 August from 7 a.m.-7 p.m, Monday-Friday.
A closing reception will be held on Aug. 21 at 4:30 p.m.
Matthew McClellan, "Sweeping gestures, divine power" Harvard Gazette August 1, 2012
"Arabic Islamic Calligraphy in the Chinese Tradition: Demonstration by Master Haji Noor Deen " Mancave Daily July 25, 2012
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today