Art History Lab

Written Paintings to Veiled Nonsense: A Journey Through Maliheh Afnan’s Artistic Exploration

Maliheh Afnan’s Written Paintings: A Journey Through Her Life, Education, and Career

Maliheh Afnan’s childhood was spent in a Baha’i family in Palestine, where the art of calligraphy played a significant role in her upbringing. Her father, Hajji Mohammad Afnan, who was an important figure in the Baha’i faith, taught her Islamic calligraphy, which she later incorporated into her own work.

Afnan’s early education was also influenced by her father’s work in the faith, as she learned to read, write, and translate official documents from a young age. However, her exposure to the Western world came later when she left Palestine to pursue a Fine Arts degree at the American University of Beirut, where she studied from 1945 to 1948.

She then continued her studies and completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. in 1950. Afnan also spent some time in Kuwait, where she taught art and worked on commercial projects, thus gaining practical experience.

Afnan’s early career was influenced by the work of the American artist, Mark Tobey, who was known for his abstracted calligraphy style. She was introduced to Tobey’s work while studying at the Corcoran School of Art and later worked with him in Switzerland, where he taught her the techniques of abstraction in calligraphy.

Tobey’s influence is evident in Afnan’s work, as she blended Eastern and Western techniques to create her unique style. Afnan’s signature style is what she called “Written Paintings,” which consists of single lines of calligraphy layered and arranged in a dense and spontaneous manner.

Afnan’s Written Paintings were known for their rusty and earthy colors, which provided a contrast to the vibrancy of the calligraphic lines. Her style was characterized by its spontaneity; she often created the Written Paintings without a preconceived plan, allowing the single lines to flow naturally, creating a layered and dense texture.

Afnan’s Written Paintings were a departure from the traditional calligraphy style, which was focused on perfection and beauty. Instead, her work was about conveying the emotion and spirit of the text, bringing it to life through the abstracted and layered lines.

Her calligraphy was not just about the words on the page, but about the spirit and meaning behind them. She believed that calligraphy was a form of meditation, where the artist and the text become one.

Afnan’s success as an artist can be attributed to her unique blend of Eastern and Western techniques, as well as her exploration of calligraphy beyond its traditional forms. She was recognized for her work both in the Middle East and the Western world, exhibiting her Written Paintings in galleries and museums worldwide.

Her work has also been acquired by various institutions, including the British Museum and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In conclusion, Maliheh Afnan’s life, education, and career are a testament to the power of blending cultures and styles.

Her unique approach to calligraphy and painting has inspired countless artists, and her legacy continues to influence contemporary art. Her Written Paintings are a visual representation of the spirit and emotion behind calligraphy, challenging the traditional ideas of beauty and perfection.

Maliheh Afnan’s work will continue to inspire generations of artists for years to come. Maliheh Afnan’s Written Paintings were the hallmark of her early career, but her artistic interests were far from limited to this style.

As her career progressed, Afnan continued to experiment with different forms and styles of art, showcasing her artistic versatility. In the mid-1960s, Afnan relocated to Paris with her family, a move that proved to be a significant shift in her artistic career.

Having spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in Palestine, Beirut, and Kuwait, the geographical displacement brought about a sense of longing and nostalgia for her previous homes and experiences of travelling. This longing for home and displacement were crucial factors in her “Personnages” series, wherein she used gestural and ghostly images to create abstract and intuitive forms.

The series’ imagery explores the artist’s memories of the past homes, friends, and family members she left behind and serves as a visual representation of her desire to return to those experiences. Afnan’s later career was defined by her experimentation with different mediums.

Her varied experimentation encompassed, but was not limited to, paper, gauze, and collage. She was fascinated by the texture and malleability of paper, which inspired her to create textured surfaces and forms by manipulating the paper in unique ways.

Her use of gauze in her Veiled Series was symbolic of the veil’s stereotype in different cultures. The Veiled Series was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, where the hijab became a contentious issue in the Western world.

The media scrutiny of the veil inspired Afnan to create a series of artworks that reflected her anti-stereotype stance on the veil.

Afnan’s Veiled Series features layers of gauze that are torn and frayed, revealing a glimpse of the face beneath it.

They symbolize how the veil can evoke a sense of mystery and intrigue while simultaneously creating an environment of concealment. The layers of gauze function as a metaphor for the complexity of identity, suggesting that what is concealed is just as important as what is revealed.

The use of abstract calligraphy was another medium that Afnan had explored in her later career. Her works from this period featured calligraphic abstraction on paper, which was then added to collages.

Through this medium, she sought to create visual poetry, using text as a form of expression. Overall, Maliheh Afnan’s artistic journey is not just one of experimentation but also of versatility.

Her life’s experiences, travel, and relocation fuelled her art, giving it a raw, poignant, and intuitive edge. Maliheh Afnan remains one of the few artists who mastered the art of calligraphy while still remaining true to acquiring and displaying merit in art genres.

Her works and themed series have transcended barriers and gifted her a continuing notoriety among art lovers. Maliheh Afnan’s artistic career is notable for her unique approach to calligraphy, her experimentation with different styles and mediums, as well as the themes and subjects that her work explored.

Her distinctive style has won her critical acclaim and admiration, and her works continue to inspire artists worldwide. One of her most important artworks, Untitled (1969), was a result of her exploration of the relationship between archaeology and script.

The piece is reminiscent of ancient scrolls that have been unearthed from the sands of time, and the script itself is abstract and evocative of the styles used by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The Founder (1990) is a significant artwork in Afnan’s Personnages series and is notable for its gestural and scriptural figures.

The piece features a frail male figure and a strong female figure, which are created through the use of calligraphic lines and gestural marks. The figures merge with the background, creating a sense of fluidity and movement that is emblematic of Afnan’s style.

Nothing to Declare (2007) is another significant artwork by Afnan and is the result of her exploration of displacement and border-crossing. The piece features an X-ray of a suitcase, which has been used to smuggle someone across a border, and the transparency of the suitcase represents the transparency and vulnerability of the individual.

The artwork speaks to the plight of refugees and migrants and highlights the precariousness of their situation. Veiled Nonsense (2009) is one of Afnan’s most poignant pieces and reflects her views on the hijab and the media scrutiny it attracts.

The artwork features abstract words that have been scribbled across the canvas, which symbolize the negativity and confusion associated with the hijab in some cultural contexts. The words are arranged in a way that suggests concealment, reflecting how the hijab is perceived by some people as a form of concealment.

These artworks embody Afnan’s unique artistic approach, blending calligraphy and abstraction to create visually stunning and thought-provoking pieces. Her exploration of displacement, border-crossing, and the hijab allowed her to reflect on the realities faced by people who are often marginalized and discriminated against, and her use of abstract words and scripts served as a means of abstraction, freeing them from the oppressive connotations of the written word.

In conclusion, Maliheh Afnan’s significant artworks demonstrate her artistic versatility and her ability to probe and explore themes that are as relevant today as they were when she was creating them. Her style of blending Eastern and Western techniques has inspired countless artists worldwide and will no doubt continue to spur future generations of creatives.

In summary, Maliheh Afnan’s art and journey through life bring to light her artistic versatility, experimentation, and unique blend of Eastern and Western techniques. From her signature “Written Paintings” to her exploration of different mediums, Afnan carved a niche for herself as an artist who keenly utilized her art to explore displacement, border crossing, and the veil’s mystique.

Afnan’s important works such as Untitled (1969), The Founder (1990), Nothing to Declare (2007), and Veiled Nonsense (2009) continue to inspire and challenge artists to attempt different techniques and innovative ways of expressing their style. Maliheh Afnan’s story serves as a reminder that art can be a powerful means of self-discovery and an expression of the complexities of human experience, culture, and tradition.

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