The BASEERA Project

Joumana Medlej: Words as Symbols 

A conversation with artist and Arabic calligrapher Joumana Medlej

Written by Daniela Nofal. Published on …

Arabic calligraphy is endowed with various scripts, including Kufic, Naskh, Diwani, and Riqa’a to name but the most commonly known today. Its evolution as an art form can be traced back to the Nabatean era, where the cursive Nabatean script is believed to be the ancestor of the modern-day Arabic script. Today, we are witnessing a revived interest in modern forms and representations of Arabic calligraphy. It is within this fissure, between the old and the new, the modern and traditional, that I situate the work of Joumana Medlej.

It is the capacity of the written word to convey revealed truths that is so central to Joumana Medlej’s practice. It is by drawing on her design background, and her time spent learning under the guidance of master calligrapher Samir Sayegh, that Medlej has crafted her oeuvre. Central to her artistic practice is the geometric Kufic script. “Geometry is attractive and makes Kufic powerful,” Medlej explains to me, “Geometry is not arbitrary, it is objective, it is there, you are not inventing it, you are finding it, you are revealing it in whatever you do.” This neatly symbolizes what she believes to be the ultimate role of art: revelation. It is art’s ability to grant us access to the sacred, the eternal and non-changing that fuels her practice. At a time when we find ourselves living in a rapidly changing world, looking to Medlej’s artworks grants us access to the omnipresent and eternal.

Over the years, Medlej has created a rich and varied number of calligraphic works that she has grouped into series. Some of her earlier series include ‘Heart, Mind Spirit’, ‘Light Shadow’, and ‘Language of Love’. Upon encountering her works, we are confronted by an introspective stillness, enlivened by the use of color. Each of the works is geometrically constructed, drawing on patterns of sacred geometry, offering us a glimpse into the mathematical rules that create and unify all things. Each piece charts out a map of invisible relations: between letters, words, and the spaces in between.

Also outstanding is that a large number of her works are often concentric; harmoniously conjoined words rotate around an empty center that holds the entire piece together. The undercurrent of spiritual symbolism that runs through these works demands our meditative attention.

Liyadh, Joumana Medlej, Artist_s Studio, Courtesy of artist.jpg (1)
Liadh (Detail). PHOTO Joumana Medlej Archive.

The word is Medlej’s starting point. The word is first deconstructed, only to be reconstructed once again. By way of this process, Medlej brings into existence a new symbol, cultivating a new set of relations and possibilities. Each symbol strikes a balance between the demands of the word, both as letterforms and as meaning(s), and its visual representation. By presenting words as symbols, Medlej allows us to move beyond words as mere signifiers, granting us access to the signified: the very feeling and essence of the word. These symbols then repeatedly unfold across the surface creating a harmonious and interconnected whole. The act of repetition here is of significance; it is an ancient strategy that stems from mystical practices used by calligraphers, whereby each repetition empties the word of meaning, transcending its very limits. The processes of deconstruction, repetition, and abstraction that Medlej draws repeatedly across her artworks bring about the desired reduction in the legibility of the words. As a result, this gained obscurity allows us to transcend language itself, inviting us to move beyond the layer of cognition that compels us to make sense of things and to open ourselves up to the feelings that are stirred and evoked within us.

Wajd, Joumana Medlej, Artist_s Studio, Courtesy of artist.jpg (1)
Wajd (Detail). PHOTO Joumana Medlej Archive.

In recent years, there has been a gradual shift in Medlej’s practice. Her recent works increasingly seem to take inspiration from the realm of the metaphysical. Many of these more recent works, she explains to me, often come to her unexpectedly, and their arrival oftentimes acts as a rousing call to which Medlej can only respond by giving them earthly form. One such piece is ‘The Cloud’, part of the ‘Cosmology’ series, which draws its inspiration from the work and research of early thirteenth century Andalusian Muslim scholar, mystic, poet, and philosopher, Ibn Arabi.

In this heavily researched piece, Medlej employs the word ‘The Cloud’ to explore the notion of the divine breath, which she explains to be “the first of two steps of creation: by breathing out, the Divine releases the realities of the world, confined in a state of potentiality, into the divine imagination, before the second step — the utterance of the creative word, gives them forms and outer existence.” In this piece, Medlej focuses her attention on charting the uttered alphabet, rather than the written, proceeding from hâ’ ه, the innermost sound, to wâw و, the outermost sound. The sound generated from each utterance carries with it the human breath, reflecting the divine breath on the human level.

Cloud, Joumana Medlej, Artist_s Studio, Courtesy of artist.jpg (1)
Cloud (Detail). PHOTO Joumana Medlej Archive.

Another major development in her practice has been the replacement of synthetic and plastic substances with natural paints and pigments that she often collects on foraging trips. She believes this to be an essential component in the practice of making art. “I am starting from the ground, picking the pigments and grinding them, then it is a more complete act of creation,” she tells me. This rekindling with nature is her way to remedy and repair the loss of connection to nature, which she claims to have been extremely damaging to both artists and the arts as a whole. She explains how old treatises of making paints were strongly rooted in planetary systems and bodies of knowledge; botany, geology, cooking processes, as well as changing seasons and cycles.

Barr, Joumana Medlej, Artist_s Studio, Courtesy of artist (1)
Barr (Detail). PHOTO Joumana Medlej Archive.

These developments have unsurprisingly brought about a gradual slowdown in Medlej’s practice, as she chooses to sensitively and conscientiously respond to the world around her as she moves through it. It is with deep-rooted care and thoughtfulness that she chooses to make visible and reveal that which is not accessible, nor available to us in our everyday lives. Each encounter with her work acts as a bridge between the cognitive and affective, offering us a unique perspective to reflect on the reality of existence.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Today, the use of Arabic calligraphy has become increasingly pervasive across various forms of visual communication. It has been witnessing a revival of sorts, as many seek to incorporate it in their artistic practices, but also into the creation of contemporary logos and design components. One could argue that it is the geometric structure of the script that lends itself so readily to such creative processes of abstraction. Although such revived interest can help to put into motion processes that transform and modernize the Arabic script, Medlej cautions against the over-fetishization of the script.

Many Kufic styles exist today, however very few have been closely studied. In order to both situate and draw on them in her practice, Medlej has been committed in recent years to reconstructing and rediscovering various Kufic scripts, which entails not only understanding the proper rules of the script but also reviving the materials used and the practice as a whole. She sheds light on how this process of rediscovery is not simply about understanding the shape of the letters, or the rule of the script, but how all these components come together. When it is then taken up as traditional art, the practice of Arabic calligraphy introduces an entirely different rhythm to everyday life, bringing about a slowing down. It is the materiality of this artform, coupled with a certain embodiment, that can leave the practitioner entirely transformed. “Imagine how doing this daily would change your life. To make your own ink, cut your own pens,” she explains.

Teaching is another component of Medlej’s practice. The rules of the script need to be figured out, documented, and understood in order for them to be taught. The importance of bringing these scripts back to life lies in the need to keep them alive for future generations to come. Although she artistically incorporates the Kufic script into her practice, she strives to do so with the utmost respect for the proper rules of the script. What becomes evident, however, is that she does not become entrapped within the realm of the traditional, but rather, that she succeeds in bringing together both the traditional and the modern, bringing them into dialogue with one another, developing a conceptual abstract form of calligraphic art. Perhaps most significant is this reminder of the need for continuity that counters the forces and claims of modernity that enforce a rupture with the old, the traditional. She points to the possibility that another way is possible.

Joumana Medlej was born and raised in Beirut (lb). She is currently based in London, where she has been living since 2013. As an artist and Arabic calligrapher, she has exhibited in group shows as well as solo shows, and her works can be found in private and public collections in Lebanon, KSA, UK, and USA.

Arab British Center, Joumana teaches Kufic calligraphy here
Domestika, here, too

LINKS Majnouna Joumana Medlej Joumana Medlej