We often think of the pen as something guided by the hand, which in turn is guided by the brain. But what if the pen were a tool for taking in information, for learning new things? What if, by studying the practice of calligraphy — moving a writing implement, dipped in ink, across a page — we could learn about a culture far away?
For a course by Faraz Khan, Introduction to the History and Practice of Arabic Calligraphy, offered at Rutgers University in May, the ability to read and write Arabic is not a prerequisite. Students will learn the history and practice of Arabic calligraphy and calligraphic art.
“This course will take students on a historical journey through different time periods and lands where written Arabic flourished,” says the course description. “Students will be exposed to different forms of Arabic lettering to examine a majestic art form that flourished not only to beautify the Quran but are elementary in architecture and home decor. In addition, the class will expose students to contemporary direction for Arabic calligraphy as an expressive art in the West and a case for the American script.”
To promote the teaching of this ancient art, the most contemporary means of marketing tools is used — a video posted on Facebook. And Khan is contemporary — his calligraphy involves writing with light.
Khan is the 2015 Arts Council of Princeton Anne Reeves artist-in-residence, and will be leading seven events in Princeton that demonstrate his unique, contemporary approach to Arabic calligraphy, beginning at the Communiversity Festival of the Arts on Sunday, April 26, where he will show participants how to write their names in Arabic on pendants to be displayed in Palmer Square.
Among the other events will be a discussion of “The Canticle of the Birds,” an illustrated manuscript of a Sufi text — the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art — in which all the worlds’ birds have transcended from human souls.
On Friday, June 26, participants will be invited to the Princeton Public Library, bringing old books. Khan will paint Arabic calligraphy on them, words “pertaining to knowledge and wisdom,” he says. He will do this for eight hours as people observe.
Khan will continue in September when he arrives outside the Princeton University Art Museum to demonstrate Arabic calligraphy, words, stories, and cartoons made with light. Using a slow shutter speed so the camera can absorb patterns of light, Khan will project this on a screen. “The audience will see movement of light but the meaning will come true when it’s projected,” he says. “It will have a graffiti element, taking light and showcasing attention on surroundings, projecting an image based on cumulative random flashes of light that don’t have meaning to us until you sequence it together and it becomes a light story.”
Then in October, at the conclusion of his residency, Khan will have an exhibition, “The Making of a New Script,” at the Arts Council’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts. “I will be taking items such as tables, chairs, and curtains, and adding a new style of calligraphy,” he says. “There will be a lot of painting, to give a new feel to generic items, to give new meaning.” He wants to showcase the “uniqueness of the language and calligraphy style to beautify surroundings.”
Khan lived the first 14 years of his life in Pakistan, then moved with his family to New Jersey “to escape turmoil and instability. My parents came to seek a better education for their children,” he says. His father has since retired from working as a consultant for an environmental firm in accounting and human resources.
Khan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology at Rutgers and a master’s in liberal arts at Thomas Edison State College, works for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, viewing wetland projects and identifying and interpreting rules and regulations to protect them, but he also works as a consultant for Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies department and the Muslim Life Program. Formerly a resident of Lawrence Township, he moved to Princeton two years ago “because I like the atmosphere” for his two sons, ages two months and three years.
He first learned Arabic calligraphy about five years ago — growing up in Pakistan, the language was Urdu, which uses Arabic letters. “But Arabic wasn’t my first language, I had to learn it. I studied styles of Arabic calligraphy, reading texts on architecture for my master’s degree. I wanted to understand what differentiates one style from another and wanted to help others see this.
“Once I jumped in I felt attached,” he says. “So much can be done with script and artistic style. Traditionally, there were rules about ratios and proportions and the angle of pen.”
Kufic script, the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts, is linear and bold. It developed at the end of the seventh century in Kufa, Iraq, and until about the 11th century it was the main script used to copy Qurans.
Naskh script is a basic script, the first that most learn to read and write. “It’s very simple and elegant but legible,” says Khan. “Most non Arabs read the Quran in Naskh. People like to read the Quran in Arabic so children are taught Naskh because it is simpler in style and readability.”
Khan uses a combination of scripts. “It’s a more modern approach. Most people write according to a standard style, but now people are creating their own unique way. It’s about creating art. In the Arab region calligraphy is an art, not a craft. Buildings and monuments are decorated with scripts to beautify the sculpture, whether inside or outside.”
The tools of his trade are paint, glitter, and glue. “Traditional tools were bamboo sticks cut at certain angles and dipped into black India ink. The pen holds ink for only a few words until you have to dip again.” Khan’s artwork is bigger so he uses graffiti markers and brushes. For light writing his source is often a cell phone.
Khan likes using calligraphy to build a bigger picture, or pictograms. He recently made an outline of the Paul Robeson Center, and instead of painting with different colors, he wrote calligraphy in it. “It looks like painting, but if you look closer you see calligraphy in colors,” he says. Visitors to Princeton University’s Murray Dodge Hall, Office of Religious Life, second floor, can see a six-by-five foot canvas of a similar illustration with Arabic writing, created by students Khan advised.
“Growing up learning Urdu, I was intrigued by words that depicted forms,” he says. When he moved to the U.S. and learned English, “I found that it wasn’t Urdu that formed these pictograms but these images were a product of my own imagination. It was the beginning of my fascination to make words smile, show anger, dance, and become old to others.
“Most people know the script but not the language,” says Khan. “Most people have seen the script hanging on walls, but they don’t know what kind of script it is. It mutates understanding, because the cheap plastic replicas made in China that people put on their walls to show religiosity is killing artistic expression. People decorate their homes with replicas because there are no alternatives. Part of what I’m trying to do is show paintings with a unique script with a flow to it.
“American Muslim education has focused on medical, legal, and engineering, but art appreciation is often neglected, cutting off American Muslims from their heritage,” Khan says. “They wouldn’t dare to touch a bamboo stick to make art — it hit me on a deeper level, our community wasn’t creating art, creating something beautiful and sharing with others. I felt it was a duty for me, to create and share art that is living, not just mimicking masters — many just copy standard styles — but I add to it.”
For his exhibition Khan is creating a new script he calls Princetoni. “Different regions have their own scripts, and I’m continuing that legacy. It’s something to be proud of, shared, learned, and admired.”
Faraz Khan, Palmer Square Green. A community calligraphy-based art project. Sunday, April 26, 1 to 6 p.m.
The Conference of the Birds or Islamic Art Lecture, Solley Theater, Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. With Princeton University professor of Near Eastern studies Michael Barry. Thursday, May 21, 7 p.m.
A Bookcase of Art, Princeton Public Library. Friday, June 26, 1 to 8 p.m.
Arabic Calligraphy Workshops, Arts Council of Princeton. Saturday, July 11.
Calligraphy Workshop, Princeton Shopping Center, Thursday, August 13, 5:30 p.m.
Light Art Calligraphy Performance, Princeton University Art Museum Lawn. Thursday, September 10.
Making of an American Script, Taplin Gallery, Arts Council of Princeton. Faraz Khan exhibition. October 1 to 31.
www.artscouncilofprinceton.org/communiversity and www.farazkhanartstudio.com.