Unchanged and New

The Islamic Calligraphy of Qaisar Iqbal




Earlier this year I sat down in the Ishq Gallery with Qaisar Iqbal to discuss his work, which was a unique combination of Islamic calligraphy and textile. His new pieces maintain the traditional mystical experience of his earlier work, but have evolved to demonstrate a comprehension of contemporary aesthetics, further deepening the visual dialogue between the ancient and modern. The calligraphy in these pieces is more intensely layered, suggesting multiple levels of interpretation, or a diversity of voices over vast stretches of time reciting the same phrases. It’s breathtaking stuff. Here are some of his new paintings, in addition to the interview from our first meeting.

Qaisar Iqbal did not sit down to talk about himself, or to ornament his artistic persona with the jazz music that was drifting through the Ishq gallery on the blue heels of a rainy Wednsday. He didn’t come to discuss the ubiquitous demonization of Arabs or Muslims, or how the consequent discrimination might have forced its hand upon the shaping of his personality. And like most mystics, he came not to share his world, but his visions.

One of the first things that strikes you about Iqbal’s work is its ability to suggest the soul of something ancient lasting through the erosions of time and cultural evolution. An American citizen of Pakistani origin, Iqbal’s early work was centered in sports illustration, particularly polo, the high jump, and racing. In college, he often studied at a museum near his campus. As a student, he was drawn to the 16th and 17th century Qur’ans, but it wasn’t simply the profoundly ornate inscriptions that inspired him.

“The thing that attracted me in those days, if you look at the old manuscripts of the Qur’an, whether it’s a page, or a complete book, it has an old or weathered effect. You can see the depths of the waters of stains, and the ink is gone away and faded, particularly I should mention that[ when the] Qur’ans were written, particularly in Iran and Syria, at that time the calligrapher was an artist as well. They would make a very big border all around each page, comprising of a thousand pages perhaps, each page would have ornamented details, a very fabulous Islamic pattern, and you can see that the colors are gone, but the evidence of gold is still there.”

It was during his experiences of these ancient texts that he began contemplating enlarging portions, and incorporating them into paintings.

“So instead of doing a small painting and trying to make a very elaborate border, I thought I should use textile. I was a textile designer also. But then I looked for particular textile that would go well with my compositions, not techno-prints, not very vibrant colors, but something that would comply with my over all color scheme and technique.

“To give it the antique or old look I have developed my own procedures, using very thin colors. You can see that there are many layers of color in one piece. And you can see where the ink has worn away, and this is the effect I tried to achieve in that.”

The poet Rumi asserted the capacity of music, poetry and dance to unite the individual with the divine, using art as physical practice in the experience of God. In the wide strokes and rapid diacritical marks that comprise the calligraphic foreground of Iqbal’s pieces, there is an echo of a dance. Arabic is one of the most preserved languages in the world, largely because of the Qur’an, before which it existed solely a spoken language. As such, the motions involved in writing out these passages are largely the same as those performed by the first transcribers of the holy text. I asked him how this ritualistic aspect affects the internal experience of his creative process.

“I did not puzzle the lettering of the text of the Qur’an, it’s still readable. If someone knows Arabic, he or she can read that.

“The mystical experience is definite. My own situation is when I apply myself to this particular art or theme, I play some mystical music, not jazz, but you know, I love all music. You can get meaning, whatever you want from each and every piece of music. But I will play old mystical Iranian or Arabic music in particular, and that uplifts you, and you have a feeling that you are really doing some spiritual work.”

You might expect some implication of dogmatic superiority in artwork based on religious scripture, some trace of evangelistic design shifting beneath the layers of textile and paint. But even the spiritually blind soapbox Christians on the corner down the street would be hard pressed to make any such accusation of Iqbal’s work.

“I will not say that through these paintings one should suppose that I am a Muslim and have [therefore] made these paintings for any particular sect, or particular group. No, the paintings can reflect a universal message. Paintings can bring the multitude of people closer, whether they are Christian, Hindu, this art is for everybody, and art can play a very catalystic role to bring societies together.

“So many church people, they said they were seeing something great. And I put all the English translations of the Arabic so people can read what it means. To a person who knows about painting, like an abstraction you don’t know exactly what someone has painted, but yet it gives you some connection, and you are connected with it, and can say ‘That’s something great you have made.’ Sometimes we are not in total understanding of the meanings of a particular piece, but they are of meaning and can be appreciated.”

While his pieces transcend the perceptual borders between the traditional and contemporary, they also diminish the distinctions between our various schools of belief. The result is something that makes no assertion as to rightness, or even really artistic merit, but instead inspires a sense of underlying interconnectedness. Iqbal’s work proves itself to be a manifestation of this, rather than an egoistic statement.

“I don’t want for people to connect me back, like “you are from Pakistan” like an alien or immigrant is doing something big, I just want to be a part of this community. I am American.

“I’m telling you, this is a great country to learn so many things. How much you can absorb yourself in this community, what you can see, how you can learn, I’m very much pleased.

“This is a bad time for Muslims. All over the world the grave label of terrorism is upon them, but besides that, let’s talk about color, let’s talk about songs, something fresh to breathe in, like oxygen. That’s the whole idea.”

And it’s the whole idea behind the Ishq gallery as well, Ishq meaning pure love, the love that connects the individual with the universal, the spirit with God. And though he has been dead since 1273, it is Rumi’s words that best describe the paintings hanging within it right now.

“Lover’s nationality is separate from all other religions,
The lover’s religion and nationality is the Beloved (God).
The lover’s cause is separate from all other causes
Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries”

by S. Preston Duncan Images courtesy of the Ishq Gallery