News

Reading the Arabesque with Kamal Boullata

December 19, 2018

World renowned artist Kamal Boullata reflects on his work, his years in Washington, and the early days of CCAS.

Portrait of Kamal Boullata
Portrait of Kamal Boullata by Amanda Ribas Tugwell

By Vicki Valosik

Last spring, renowned Palestinian artist and longtime friend of CCAS Kamal Boullata returned to the Center to deliver the 2018 Kareema Khoury Distinguished Lecture, a public series that brings eminent scholars of the Arab world to speak at Georgetown. Boullata’s talk, “Reading the Arabesque,” explored the correspondence between the geometric structure of the arabesque and key features of Arabic grammar.

abstract geometric acrylic painting
Kamal Boullata, Angelus 1-3, 2016 (Acrylic on canvas 100 x 100 cm, Courtessy of Meem Gallery)

“It was an honor to welcome Kamal Boullata back to the Center,” says CCAS Director Rochelle Davis. “Mr. Boullata has made valuable and lasting contributions as an artist, cultural critic, and art historian—and also created the CCAS logo, which has been a proud part of our center for 40 years.” Davis adds that hosting Mr. Boullata continues CCAS’ legacy of honoring eminent scholars such as Edward Said, Roger Owen, Albert Hourani, and Laila Abu Lughod among others, made possible through the Kareema Khoury Distinguished Lecture series.

Born in Jerusalem in 1942, Boullata remembers childhood days spent sketching engravings and geometric patterns in front of the Dome of the Rock. During summers, while his siblings learned to play musical instruments, young Kamal honed his craft under the tutelage of Khalil al-Halabi, an icon painter well-known in the Christian quarter of the Old City. Boullata formalized his art education at the Fine Arts Academy in Rome and the Corcoran Gallery School of Art in Washington D.C., where he remained for 25 years.

In Washington, Boullata was influenced by American painters of the Color School, whose works he often stopped to study at a gallery between his home and the Corcoran. “I was seduced by the power of their color and the power of their geometry,” he says. “But I felt it was hollow, so I thought of introducing words in Arabic from my own cultural background—mostly Christian and Muslim sources and idioms uttered by Sufis.” He began experimenting with a colorful and geometric form of calligraphy, filling in letters and words square by square on graph paper, their shape influenced by the grid of the page rather than the slant or width of the kamish (reed pen) typically used in Arabic calligraphy. “In this way, I was extending the art of drawing in creating words,” says Boullata. He later abandoned the use of script but kept the graph paper, dissecting squares diagonally and crosswise, finding beauty in the multiplying and changing geometric shapes that would come to exemplify his later works.

During Boullata’s years in Washington, which spanned the 1970s through the early 1990s, he produced artwork for books, posters, and exhibits, wrote extensively, and edited volumes of Arabic poetry. He also collaborated with friends and colleagues—including Hisham Sharabi, Samia Farouki, and Syrian poet Adonis—to establish the Arab American Cultural Foundation. The foundation brought together Arab intellectuals and artists living in Washington and hosted lectures, musical concerts, and poetry readings, including one given by Mahmoud Darwish. Many of the events took place at Georgetown’s Gaston Hall.

Calligraphic drawing by Kamal Boullata featuring the words Tharwa/Thawra
Kamal Boullata, Thawra/Tharwa, 1978 (Silkscreen, 61 x 50 cm)

In addition to his work with the foundation, Boullata also played an important role in the formation of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and its early intellectual life. In the early 1970s, a circle of scholars and intellectuals—Boullata among them—began discussing the need for an academic center focused on the contemporary Arab world. Dr. Michael Hudson, Professor Emeritus and former CCAS Director, recalls asking Boullata if he would create a calligraphic work to use for events surrounding the formation of the center. “We chose the words ‘al-‘Arab al-yawm’ [“the Arabs today”] because we wanted something that indicated that the center was not going to be a classical or narrow academic center looking only at the past. The word ‘al-yawm’ (today) was significant.”

That evening, Kamal sketched out the calligraphy on graph paper, molding the words into an intricate diamond shape. He brought the design back the next morning, thinking it would be used only for a short period. Instead, it became an instant classic and was adopted as the official logo of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies once it was established in 1975 (the logo can be seen on the cover of this issue). “I never thought it would last more than a weekend or I would have spent more time on it” jokes Bullata. “To see that it is still surviving has been quite something.”

In the early 1980s, CCAS Professor Barbara Stowasser invited Boullata to co-teach a class on the “gestalt of Arab culture.” Boullata recalls his teaching experience fondly, especially how his students would often join him on his walk home after class, sometimes staying for dinner. Boullata invited several poets and musicians to his class—and even a belly dancer on one memorable occasion. “I wanted the students to know, to realize, that belly dancing is not simply an erotic or sexy dance,” says Boullata. “If one looks at the navel of the dancer, the movements around the navel echo the same movements of an Arabesque, the centrifugal movements.” Boullata recalls what an event it became once the dancer, who was associated with the Yemeni embassy, arrived in traditional costume and bare feet and started dancing to music. “Everyone in the corridor was coming by and started clapping! She was excellent, a brilliant woman! It turned out to be a big story on campus. Like ‘Oh, this is the guy that brought in the dancer to class.’”

In 1993 Boullata left Washington to spend two years conducting field research on Islamic art in Morocco as a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellow. Following the fellowship, Boullata and his wife Lily moved to France and have lived in Europe—now in Germany—since. In 2011, Boullata received a Ford Foundation grant to conduct research on post-Byzantine painting and the origins of modern art in Palestine, and in 2012 he was elected as a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin.

Boullata delivering the CCAS Kareema Khoury Distinguished Lecture

Kamal Boullata’s career has been rich and varied, moving regularly between the worlds of writing and of painting. He is the author of four books on Palestinian art, and his essays in English and Arabic have appeared in catalogues, anthologies, and academic journals. His art is held at a number of prominent public collections, including at the British Museum, Institut du Monde Arabe in, Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman, New York Public Library, Sharjah Art Museum, and Museum of the Alhambra in Granada.

Even though nearly 40 years have passed since those early conversations about a need for a center focused on contemporary issues in the Middle East, Hudson can see Boullata’s lasting influence at CCAS. “Kamal made a significant contribution toward making the center inclusive of cultural and artistic—as well as political, historical and economic—topics,” says Hudson. “It was more than fitting to bring him back, not only as a distinguished figure respected across the Arab world, but also as someone who had a role in shaping the intellectual and cultural agenda of CCAS from the very beginning.”

Vicki Valosik is the CCAS Multimedia and Publications Editor.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.