Islamic art in spotlight in ‘Language of the Quran’

Islamic art — not often seen in museums and galleries in this country — is the focus of an exhibition designed to enhance understanding among different cultures and to showcase deserving talent and remarkable calligraphy.

“Arabic: Language of the Quran,” on view at San Francisco’s Main Library, contains more than 50 works in which contemporary artists from the Bay Area, North America and the Middle East interpret the Quran through painting, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, digital art and other media.

The show is presented by Islamic Art Exhibit, a local organization dedicated to building bridges between communities through the visual arts of the Muslim diaspora. Because Islamic art is a genre often ignored by galleries, the group presents its shows in public spaces.

Islamic art, which originated in the seventh century, is inspired by the Quran. Unlike Christian art, in which biblical subjects are depicted (with representation) in paintings and statues, Islamic art uses non-pictorial methods, especially calligraphy, to illustrate holy text. It also contains colorful, intricate patterns and exquisitely balanced floral and geometrical designs.

The exhibit centers on the importance of the Arabic language in Islamic art. The Quran was written in Arabic, and artists of all nationalities use Arabic calligraphy to represent Allah, Muhammad and other subjects of the holy book. To use any other language would be to lose cadences and nuances found in the original text.

The 23 participating artists have taken a verse from the Quran and, with Arabic calligraphy and traditional and contemporary design, illustrated it in their chosen medium.

In “Peace,” India-born artist Rubina Kazi gracefully combines peace-themed red calligraphy with the blue contour of a dove, and old with modern. The style of her painting suggests Western abstract expressionism until traditional geometric and other Islamic forms in the background become evident.

In a painting titled “Motherhood,” Bassamat Bahnasy addresses the troubled situation in her native Syria through a contemporary image conveying a mother’s, and all mothers’, anguish. Words from the Quran provide what Bahnasy, in her artist’s statement, describes as the only comforting words she could offer.

Photographer Jane Waddick created “Flowers From the Blue Garden III,” a digital image on wood, in which photographs of old Islamic tiles and salvaged cabinet doors are treated with gesso. She describes the finished work as having a fresco-like texture. Like much of the art in the show, it has eye-popping beauty and a harmonious quality whose appeal exceeds boundaries of faith.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the library will host a demonstration of Islamic calligraphy with artist Arash Shirinbab on March 13.

Arabic: Language of the Quran
Where: San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, noon to 6 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 20
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 557-4400,

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