Arabic calligraphy is a tradition that wrote itself — literally. The revered craft is more than 1,400 years old, and early scripts were used to write the first Quran. Over centuries, Arabic calligraphy has evolved from the practical to the beautiful — no longer just a way to share information, but also a form of art and an important part of Saudi’s cultural identity. Today, visitors will see traces of its letterforms throughout Arabia, from inscriptions in mosques to modern art.
Riyadh-based contemporary artist Nugamshi has a great appreciation for Arabic calligraphy, incorporating it into his works, which combine live performances with fonts, ideas and content. “It is my belief that letters are a strong element, perhaps one of the strongest elements, of an identity,” says Nugamshi, who performs calligraphy techniques with brooms and other unusual tools. He has staged performances throughout the Middle East and the United States, on surfaces as varied as the desert’s sands, long untouched rocks and scraps of metal. “When you see a Chinese character, you associate it in your memory immediately with a flash of something about the culture; it’s the same for Arabic calligraphy. This is why I believe the characters, or the language, is the most powerful identity.”
Watch the video below to learn more about the use of traditional Arabic letterforms in modern-day art through Nugamshi’s eyes. In this video, he transforms the ancient craft of calligraphy into contemporary art during multiple large-scale performances — where he writes the word “identity” — and he shares his inspirations and the stages of the written letter.
“I think that letters have two stages, the stage of life and the stage of drawing or its writing. It has a nice movement, as though it’s the growth of a plant or flower. The next stage comes in. That is stillness, embalming, death,” he says.
“I consider that the beauty in the Arabic letter and in letters in general. During the painting process is where the life of a letter lies — that has a movement.”
Arabic is thought to have evolved from the Nabataean dialect, with the earliest pre-Islamic inscriptions found in stone dating back to around the sixth century. The earliest form of Arabic script is known as Jazm, which led to a variety of other styles and forms, including Kufic, the first script used to write the Quran. As Islam spread during the seventh and eighth centuries, so did Arabic and the use of Kufic, which is known for its readability and geometric artistry. Over the years, different forms and styles of the script were born, and a more cursive script became predominant around the 12th century.
Throughout these changes, Arabic calligraphy evolved from simply a method of written communication into an artform. Arabic calligraphy is of such cultural importance that UNESCO is considering adding it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
In 2020, Saudi’s Ministry of Culture launched the Year of Arabic Calligraphy, an initiative for people and organizations to share ideas for promoting the artform. The initiative was extended through 2021; visitors can already see more calligraphy popping up in the form of street art in Riyadh’s tunnels and roadways and in beautification efforts on Makkah Road in Sakaka.
“I believe one of the most beautiful arts in human history is Arabic calligraphy and calligraphy in general,” Nugamshi says. “Everyone can get his time and try to make his mark and not use the same tools. I’m not a printer, I’m a human being — you are a human being. You need to have your mark.”
Nugamshi uses brooms and other unusual tools, many of his own making, to create letters during his performances.
Head to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) for a series of Arabic calligraphy programs, workshops and exhibitions throughout 2021. Want more? Follow Nugamshi on Instagram to keep up with his latest performances and projects. Also, check out this free e-learning platform for Arabic calligraphy and Islamic decorative arts, which the Ministry of Culture launched as part of the Year of Arabic Calligraphy.
—Lisa Zimmermann is a travel writer and editor who has previously written for Club Traveler, Boston magazine, New England Travel, American Airlines and Atlas Magazine.