Harf Al Kaf
Harf Al Kaf
An exhibition of the works of a contemporary Arab artist such as Ali Omar Ermes needs some preliminary introduction. For his painting has its ultimate source, not in the more familiar traditions of the western world, but in the Muslim Arab culture of the Near East and North Africa. To Muslims, divine revelation is enshrined in the Qur'an, revealed through the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). That revelation is written in Arabic and, as such, is a transcription of an Arabic Qur'an which exists in heaven eternally. Hence, the Arabic words of the Qur'an have an incomparable significance and holiness, far surpassing, for example, the reverence in the past accorded to the text of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) in western Christianity. By extension, Arabic word and letter forms in general have an innate holiness, and the art of Arabic calligraphy takes on unique significance as the artist seeks the perfect curves, the perfect proportions, the perfect spacing of letters for this most holy language.
Having made this point, however, it would be quite wrong to equate Ali Omar Ermes with the traditional Arabic calligraphers. As in so many art forms of earlier centuries, calligraphers of the Islamic past were trained to copy the style of their master, and only when they had achieved his perfection could they move forward to create his own individual contribution to the art form.
Working with pen and ink they were also constrained by the physical limitations of their materials. Hence, Arabic calligraphy was a highly circumscribed art form, of the greatest beauty, but also of the strictest limitations. Ermes, however, does not claim to be a calligrapher, but rather a painter. He makes the point in a number of his works. For example, he notes on one canvas that its letter forms are in a painted style, and he entitles a number of other paintings decorative compositions on the basis of the letter.
This identification of himself as a painter allows Ermes much greater freedom than is permitted to a calligrapher. Sometimes, as in the composition based on three vertical groupings of three meems, he weaves the letters of his foreground so tightly into their background that they become a rhythm-like river, and almost cease to have calligraphic identity (as seen in the piece that is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Al Meem Stream). But it needs again to be reiterated: Arabic letter forms are the basis of Ermes' paintings, and as such they speak volumes about his beliefs, about the culture from which he comes, and about the ultimate source of his inspiration.
Pursuing our painterly theme, Ermes is then free to explore whatever paint and the paintbrush have to offer. He explores colour, sometimes in simple contrasts of light and dark, or by varying complimentary and contrasting tones, by separating foreground and background, or by drawing them together through different colour emphases. Texture, too, fascinates Ermes. He often uses the word silk as he talks about his paintings, and many of his textures do indeed have a silky quality which enriches them visually and makes one want to run one's fingers over them. Ermes, however, is not simply a painter, for his paintings have another aspect which takes them outside the mainstream of standard artistic expression. Having begun life as a poet, he now uses Arabic literary quotations as part of his compositions.
The study of Islamic art in an academic environment is normally directed towards its earlier manifestations: the period of its earliest development under the Umayyads in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, its great classical period under the Abbasids in the 9th and 10th. Dynasties such as the Ottoman Turks, the Safavids in Iran, or the Mughals in India, provide the raw material for our appreciation of later Islamic art, but all too often our interests fail to move forward with the times.
For Islamic art is not dead, and as long as Islam remains, so will Islamic art. The problem of today is how to recognize Islamic art, or, to put it from the artist's point of view, how to express art in a form which enables it to be recognized, understood and appreciated as something essentially Islamic, but with a universal message.
The work of Ali Omar Ermes can be seen in collections globally, public and private. As an artist he is globally regarded with his work exhibited in the Tate Britain, British Museum and the Ashmolean. In America his work is seen at the galleries that make up The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and in the Middle East his work is held at the Beit Al Quran in Bahrain and the National Gallery of Fine Arts in Jordan as well as in leading private collections in the region.