Calligraphy is one of Islam’s most iconic art forms. Its bold, one-stroke approach goes hand in glove with the flowing lines of Arabic script, making it a venerated medium to convey the prayers contained within the Koran.
Calligraphy has also worked its way into Indonesian art for hundreds of years with the introduction of Islam into the country, making it nearly as ubiquitous as wayang puppets or batik prints .
Now this art form is as strong as ever, as Taman Ismail Marzuki holds its second annual “Calligraphy Islam” exhibition which runs through Saturday. The event features pieces by new and veteran artists of diverse technique and outlook.
These include crossing over calligraphy with other arts like painting and sculpture, as well as striking a balance between faith and cultural identity or roots. One poignant example is Anindyo Widito’s “Untukmu Agamamu dan Untukku Agamaku” (“Your Religion Is for You, and My Religion Is for Me”) a surah (prayer) in the Koran whose first lines are written in their original Arabic on the foreground of the painting.
Painted in stark dark colors reminiscent of old Javanese paintings of temples like Borobudur or Prambanan, the work seemingly depicts a traditional temple on the same lines. But a closer look reveals something entirely different, both literally and figuratively.
True to the title’s message of religious tolerance and respect for other people’s different beliefs, the structure slyly features church spires, Buddhist pagodas and the peaks of Hindu temples to go along with the Arabic characters of the letter and a streamer with an excerpt of prayer.
Anindyo didn’t overlook symbols, as he drew a six-pointed Star of David under the small dome of a synagogue. Even the darker side of belief didn’t miss his deceptively subdued sight, as he drew a 666 under a figure of Durga, the Hindu goddess of destruction.
On the other hand, Supardjo’s painting “Semar” depicts the wise clown in the wayang universe whose figure was fashioned from a prayer, the Surah Ali Imran verse 110.
The 52-year-old artist chose the prayer to flesh out Semar, as the character seemed to personify the principles of ethics and belief in God that was brought up in the prayer. Supardjo’s portrayal of Semar is also a tangible way of touching on his traditional roots, as the character is an iconic figure in his hometown of Klaten, Central Java.
Other artists, like Rahayu Pratiwi, sought to put their faith in the context of modern science. Her work “Bermata Tapi Tak Melihat” (“Having Eyes but Failed to See”) depicts the character for Allah in a microscopic cell. The painting seems to address the ongoing conflict and dichotomy between science and religion.
But the 32-year-old artist seemed to affirm her religious beliefs, as if to indicate that scientists, for all their skills and learning, are rendered blind to faith by those factors as well as their rational, intelligent way of thinking.
The work is also done on a reversible black and white screen, as if to adjust the piece to their background.
While the piece’s emphasis on contemporary science differs from works like “Untukmu Agamamu dan Untukku Agamaku” and “Semar,” which touch on religion and tradition, Rahayu’s piece shares the other works’ balance between piety and science.
As for sculptor Bernauli Pulungan, his take on calligraphy entails incorporating it into the lively lines of his untitled sculpture. The work, which looks futuristic due to its undulating lines, yet organic due to its resemblance to trees, managed to seamlessly include the Arabic character of Allah on three of its rows.
The effect gives a sense of infinity and dynamism that succeeds in rivaling contemporary, secular art today.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 24, 2013