Friday, August 30, 2013

Arabic Calligraphy in West Africa: Yelimane Fall at the Krannert Art Museum

I found these eye-popping canvas hangings in the permanent collection of the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In Senegal, a small country, the farthest west in Africa, many roads have crossed throughout history. Slaves were traded between Africa and the West from Dakar's Goree Island. And here, too, local religions were penetrated by Islam in the mystical form of Sufism, little known elsewhere in Black Africa.
Yelimane Fall, Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004. Acrylic on canvas.
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6
Surat al-Fatiha.
These paintings are the work of Yelimane Fall, an eminent Senegalese calligrapher and follower of Cheik Amadou Bamba, a saint of Senegalese Islam and a secular hero who led non-violent resistance to French rule in the early twentieth century. The work is surprising on several levels. Certainly the first is its contemporary interpretation of Arabic calligraphy. In Beauty and Belief the outstanding survey of Islamic art that I reviewed in January '13, the many examples of Arabic calligraphy demonstrated the values of exquisite control over ethereal forms. The tradition is virtually angelic in its lightness, intricacy, and restraint. The look of Fall's work is far from those traditions in the boldness of its forms and colors, the lack of framing around the designs, and the relentlessness of its determination to catch your eye and hold it. They are the opposite of evil-eye protection; they stare you down.

In fact, these hangings are so brave and contemporary in color, complex in composition and letter-form, that they seem more related to graffiti and tagging than to traditional Arabic calligraphy. While the artist doesn't mention such urban associations, in excerpts from recorded interviews from a residency at University of Illinois, Fall speaks directly to the great difference in aesthetics. The Arabic tradition is indeed about the beauty of the letters, which the calligrapher transforms, raising them up. But he is a Black African, and Arabic is not the language of his country or region. He does not understand his mission to lie in transforming the letters. In another film elsewhere online, he reminds his Senegalese interviewers that his language is Wolof, a tribal language spoken around Dakar and St. Louis, in the north of the country: Arabic is a foreign language to most Senegalese, and has very specific, religious use only. 

Fall, thus, is concerned that his viewers "feel, read, understand, think" in local terms. Though he uses the sacred language of the Koran, his calligraphy is thick, colorful, and made to look slower-paced than calligraphy in traditional styles: "Everything moves back to Earth. Even when my work flies, I bring it back to Earth." In this he sees himself work in what he feels is an African mode. His color, forms, and speed are native and significant to those who view it, who connect with the sacredness of texts meaningful but not necessarily legible.
Yelimane Fall,Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004.
Acrylic on canvas.Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead 
Pavilion, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6

The series of four on display at the Krannert Art Museum are not Koranic texts, but refer to Jawartou  a twenty-nine line poem written by Cheik Amadou Bamba.

The translation provided for the first panel, shown at the left, is: "May I only know the joys given by the Sublime One Who Offers Benedictions, until my entry to Paradise."

This, like the others in the series, looks to me like a fabulous puzzle, or even like magically colored marquetry, so precisely formed and laid down are the strings of writing within the large shapes of black and blue. Fall calls his wooden writing instrument a kalam, which allows precise shaping.

Without great knowledge of Islam, I am still excited about the many levels of activity in this painting. While there are neither shading nor any apparent color placements that would create volume, I nevertheless feel that something is constantly moving in or out of my peripheral vision. The combination of small forms among the big ones; the curls that end in circles, and the fluidity of those long lines of script keep the surface in constant flow. There is no background; it feels like the foreground constantly recreates itself. 
Yelimane Fall, Seven Lines from Jawartu
2003-2004. Acrylic on canvas.
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 

Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6

"Through love and the words 'there is no God but God,' may He hide my well-guarded secrets." This second hanging is quite different in look, appearing as forms laid out on a yellow surface with very little overlap. The illusion of depth or movement isn't great, but the sinuous sensuousness of separated shapes provide a tense excitement in themselves. 

Central in the composition is a large, blue numeral 7 (we remember that our numbers are from the Arabic writing system). Glancing back, and at all the paintings, 7s abound. The title of the four-part work is Seven Lines...

In the taped interview that accompanies this exhibit, Fall informs the viewer that the number 7 has important mystic meaning. It represents the double function of the key, which both closes and opens. The Koran opens with seven verses, the Fatiah, but, he says, "wherever you go in Muslim mysticism, 7 guides you." 

The spirituality of his work derives from Fall's allegiance to Bamba, founder of the Brotherhood of Mourides who, even more than other Sufis, attempt to live close to God. Bamba claimed to have met Muhammed in a dream, and Fall recounts having met Bamba in a dream as well. The mystical content of his work, then, is very convinced and follows deep rivers of religious tradition.

Yelimane Fall,Seven Lines from Jawartu, 2003-2004
Acrylic on canvas
Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 
Art Acquisition Fund 2007-16-1.2/1.3/1.5/1.6
Of the twenty-eight Arabic characters, fourteen are of light and fourteen are dark, Fall explains in his interview. The first seven are fire; the second seven are water. The seven following are air, and the last are earth. The colors, too, have assigned significance. Red, for instance, is fire; black stands for earth; air is white and water is green. The language, then, is not merely one of letters, but of colors, and a world of esoteric meanings non-believers would not dream of connecting to other than aesthetically. 
 fall in what order, or if he has colored the fire letter red or green. This leaf is translated as: "Through His grace for my profession of faith, may God keep me from all slander." 

I tend to follow art to conclusions that may end being either surprising or intuitive. In general, I trust that if the work moves me, the artist has invested what is most important into making it excellent. I think of art inspired by any faith as having a reverential aspect, a controlled fervor that reaches for the ineffable through symbols. 

Islamic art uses text literally and symbolically at the same time. The word is treated literally, as the vessel for expression and feeling. In Fall's series of paintings I see both faithfulness to that tradition and ecstatic departure that asserts everything earthy and African, brilliantly contemporary and urban.