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‘World class’: Students showcase Arabic calligraphy at Doe Library exhibit

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Artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, all of whom turned to the Arabic alphabet as an element in their modernist art, have their work showcased in drawings, writings, books and other works.


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APRIL 28, 2023

“Letters | الحروف How Artists Reimagined Language in the Age of Decolonization” is on show in Doe Library’s Bernice Layne Brown Gallery through Aug. 31. A student-curated exhibit with its origins in an art history seminar, it presents a vibrant and illustrative examination of the use of the Arabic alphabet in postcolonial art.

Anneka Lenssen, an associate professor in the art history department, taught a seminar surrounding the curation of the exhibit in fall 2022 titled “Exhibiting Calligraphic Modernism.” The initially semester-long project turned into an experience spanning the entire school year.

“We were interested in how artists felt that their relationship to Arabic was shifting either because of forced migration or because their parents lived through colonial governments,” Lenssen said. “The exhibition is dedicated to how those experiences get rendered into aesthetic decisions by artists and poets.”

The exhibit consists of 14 display cases, according to Lenssen. Artists from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, all of whom turned to the Arabic alphabet as an element in their modernist art, have their work showcased in drawings, writings, books and other works.

Marissa Lee, a sophomore studying art history and anthropology, and Hayley Zupancic, a junior studying political science and art history, curated a display case of the artist Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu’s work. Born in Turkey, Eyüboğlu was invited to the United States on a Rockefeller and Ford Foundation grant in 1960.

Eyüboğlu taught for a year as a guest professor at UC Berkeley. His mosaic, titled “The Bosporus,” was commissioned by an alumnus and later donated to campus, where it is now housed near Stephens Hall. The only discoverable record of Eyüboğlu’s time at Berkeley was found in a vintage Daily Californian newspaper, also featured in the exhibit, Zupancic said. Any other record of his involvement, either as an artist or assistant professor, was lost in years of archives, Lee added.

Murtaza Hiraj, a sophomore studying computer science, mentioned his personal connection to the exhibit as a student from Pakistan. He worked alongside Viv Kammerer, a junior studying art history, ancient Middle Eastern languages and cultures and film and media, to curate a display case featuring the work of artist Sadequain.

Hiraj highlighted how the use of language as a generalized representation of culture can create discrepancies in both art and history; specifically, he mentioned his native tongue, Urdu, and how it has to function as a unifying language in Pakistan.

Lenssen, Lee and others involved stressed the importance of campus libraries in this exhibit’s curation. Lee highlighted her experience as an anthropology student as the Anthropology Library on campus faces closure.

“The materials we ended up selecting to highlight are rare, because we have librarians that were committed to collecting world class stuff,” Lenssen said. “With funding cuts presented as a way to meet budget, an exhibition of this time wouldn’t be possible in another decade.”

As a part of the process, students Teddi Haynes, Jasmine Nadal-Chung, Kammerer and Zupancic were invited to artist Saleh al-Jumaie’s home. Al-Jumaie, whose work is featured in one of the exhibit’s display cases, spoke about his life in Iraq and how his art functioned as a “silent protest” in a time of political strife, according to Haynes.

Haynes, Nadal-Chung and campus student Reyansh Sathishkumar published a video feature on the artist entitled “Printing Silence: A feature on Iraqi artist Saleh al-Jumaie.” Haynes highlighted the importance of al-Jumaie’s spoken words and experiences being preserved in video, and how doing so exposes the “persistence and lasting nature of colonization.”

“My classmates and I felt very grateful to Saleh for being willing to speak with us so openly and with such passion,” Haynes said in an email. “We got to record his story on his own terms, using his own voice, his own choice of words. It’s a sort of truth that you don’t always have access to—historians so often face the frustration of having to speculate on a person’s thoughts and beliefs.”

The video can be viewed in the gallery, along with the rest of the exhibition. It can also be found online on the streaming platform Vimeo.

Contact Eleanor Dalton at 


APRIL 28, 2023