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When letters are stars
by Muhammad Yusuf January 11, 2018
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Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah, is collaborating with Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival (till Jan. 23) to present ‘Timo Nasseri: All the Letters in All the Stars’ (till Feb. 23). The exhibition, curated by Laura Metzler, is the artist’s first solo in the UAE. Its starting point is his take on the story of Ibn Muqla, the 10th century calligrapher who claimed to have found four missing letters in the Arabic language.

Nasseri’s artworks are a combination of new and older pieces, which highlight different mediums of his practice while putting them into a larger dialogue between fragmentation and order, in the pursuit of the infinite.

Arab calligrapher Ali Muhammad bin Hassan bin Muqla, also known as Ibn Muqla (885 - 940) believed he had found four letters that were missing from the Arabic language. Despite immense pressure and physical mutilation, he never revealed the letters: his notes on their discovery are still missing today.

Nasseri drew inspiration from this story and started searching for where Ibn Muqla could have found these letters. He theorised that they were hidden in the constellations and thus protected from the calligrapher’s enemies.

The exhibition is a result of the artist’s in-depth research and investigation of this theory as well as his practice of Arabic lettering in the method of Ibn Muqla and applying it to a recreated star chart from Baghdad in 934.

It includes four sculptures of the resulting forms as well as drawings and wood pieces outlining the process of production. This is the first time the four Unknown Letters are being shown together.

Besides the life and work of Ibn Muqla, Nasseri is also inspired by Raphael Mirami and his study of mirrors. Mirami was a Jewish Ferrarese physician and mathematician with a special interest in mirrors, optics and poetry.

He also authored the ‘Compendious Introduction to the First Part of the Study of Mirrors’ where he wrote: “I say that, for some, mirrors constitute a hieroglyph of truth in that they uncover everything that is presented to them … Others, on the contrary, hold mirrors for a symbol of falsity because they so often show things other than they are”. These lines are quoted by Nasseri in one of his works.

Another Muse is Hafiz, whom Nasseri is happy to echo (‘All the Hemispheres’):

“Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season

Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

Make a new water-mark on your excitement

And love.

Like a blooming night flower,

Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness

And giving

Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator

In your heart.

Greet Yourself

In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel

Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven

Are sitting around a fire


While stitching themselves together

Into the Great Circle inside of


Nasseri’s wide study and broad reach of interests is evident in the Masters he brings home. He was born in Berlin in 1972 to a German mother and Iranian father. He began his artistic career as a photographer before making the transition to sculpture in 2004.

After travelling to Iran with his father, he started exploring the relationship of geometry and Islamic architecture. Combining Islamic and Western cultural heritages, his work is inspired as much by specific memories and religious references as by universal archetypes described by mathematics and language, and the inner truths of form and rhythm.

Amna Alwan, member of the committee team, Department of Culture, Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival, said that the festival was all about the public. “There is nothing private about it!” she said.

She said that the works of 42 artists had been chosen around the theme of ‘Impact’. The artwork had to be inspired by Islamic arts. Participating in the festival are Sharjah Art Museum, the Qasba zone and the Al Majaz waterfront. The fest is a no profit venture and aims to enhance culture.

The museum hosts the main show as most of the artists are presenting their works there. The event is reinforced by over 150 workshops. “Many nationalities are taking part”, Alwan said. “Perhaps we mostly think of Islamic art in classical terms. Our aim is to promote a different perspective”. She said that each culture had its own way of expressing itself. She noted that each year, the theme of the festival itself is changed.      

The exhibition marks the beginning of the collaboration between Maraya Art Centre and Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival. The 20th Edition of Sharjah Islamic Arts Festival commenced on December 13, 2017.

Ibn Muqla was born in Baghdad and was one of the foremost calligraphers of the Abbāsid Age (750–1258). He is the reputed inventor of the first cursive style of Arabic lettering, the nakshi script. It replaced the angular Kūfic as the standard of Islamic calligraphy.

In the naskhī script, Ibn Muqla introduced the rounded forms and curved lines that in later styles were refined to give Arabic writing the flowing beauty for which it is renowned. Among the other scripts invented by him were the tawqi and the more elegant thuluth.

In addition to his calligraphic work, Ibn Muqla led a chequered political life. He was appointed vizier three times, and lost office thrice for being involved in political intrigue.

He was also imprisoned three times.  During one imprisonment, his enemies cut off his right hand. When released, he continued to work with great skill, using his left hand. Finally, his left hand was severed, his tongue cut out, and he was cast into prison for life a third time. He died in prison.

Written in the stars: a dramatisation by the artist

Baghdad, Sunday, the 285th day of the year 934. The night of October 12.

It was one day after the new moon. Nothing obstructed the view of Ibn Muqla. He could make out 3,000 stars with the naked eye. The view he would never see in the same way again and whose plan he now understood.

Four were missing. Without them the script was not perfect. Language and script were not in harmony. Form and content were not in balance … He had to complete the alphabet, in which all the tones on earth could resonate. It would be perfect …

The Batin, the deeper meaning, was not in the word in its form on paper. There, on paper, its character must transform into a harmony for the eyes.

To find, define and record the missing letters must be possible … And so on this night he looked up to the heavens, as if certain stars stood out, creating lines and curves between them, forming letters in the sky for him.

There were fifteen, a whole new alphabet, graceful, perfect, complete. They had always been in the sky. No one had the power to erase them and, at the same time, the sky was the perfect hiding place for them.

There he could keep them safe. He could protect them from his enemies. They wanted to control the words, so that people would see only the Zahir, the superficial meaning.

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