Enso is circle in Japanese. In Zen practice, it is linked with a particular state of being. It is typically rendered in one to three fluid strokes with a brush, taking open and closed-circle varieties. Interpretations vary, but in each is a kind of open state, a readiness to begin. It is a place where practiced discipline and uninhibited spontaneity meet. Elements of ink, tool, of the state of the wielder, and of other, unseen elements speak to each other and register that alchemy on the page.
This series explores the intersections between Arabic Calligraphy and Zen practice by rendering the traditional brush practice with a 4” reed. Spontaneous, imaginative or “no-mind” practice is not permitted within most formal schools of Arabic Calligraphy. However, it’s presence and usefulness has been documented not as self-expression, but as a potential site for God’s Self-disclosure. It is a site not reached by reason or even diligent effort, but by grace.
The text reads Allah, “God”. Waqfa is Urdu for an interval or pause. A state of readiness, not anticipation per say, between one moment and the next. Waqfa is grace and surrender simultaneously. Throw a pear in the sky. Waqfa is pause-place, mid-air rest, between the force of propelling upwards and gravity’s eventual claim. The Day of Waqfa is the commemoration of when Abraham raised the knife— and was also spared—in sacrificing Issac.
Müfredat meshk, “detailed letter exercises,” are based on repeated letter forms and connections is Thuluth script.
Nature is ever at work building pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmic motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another—John Muir
Meshk means practice. What they don’t tell you, is that it also means love. Before writing phrases, students of calligraphy practice forms, rhythms, and joins. Arabic moves. It is only much later that a student proceeds to transcribe phrases. At each turn, one’s teacher or hoca, corrects form, subtlety, flow, angle, and proportion. One completes medical school in less time than it takes to receive an icāzet, or diploma. One’s relationship with a teacher is for life.
The same is true with one’s relationship to practice. One hoca wrote that to receive and icāzet just means you can’t get any worse. What this means for practice, is that your horizons are long and wide. Time elongates. The slow, incremental process of change and of beauty becomes it’s own reward.
Connections is a series focusing on the joins in various letter forms of multiple languages and scripts. Much like martial arts, letter forms are comprised of a series of subtle, specific gestures. These intersections of gestures mark the mysterious, liminal space in written language before a line becomes a word, and in which body, gesture, text, and meaning are linked.
Rendered with a 4” balsa wood reed. Based on Thuluth letter forms Ra and Mim.
There is a flow in the quality of ink, mediated by air, heat. and soot. There is flow in how forms cover and also open space. There is flow in the stretch of thoughts that slow and exit while writing, tipping between seen and unseen worlds. Arabic script calligraphy is typically written very, very slowly.
A paper that has a clay or size coating is used to facilitate flow. It burnished to provide a smooth, only mildly absorbent surface. To write, one leans into the reed’s natural architecture, using angle and momentum to feel the moving form of the letter. Strokes are pulled and pressed across the page much like Tai Chi. Too much pressure, and the space between reed and paper closes, syphoning low. Too fast a movement, and the spread of the ink falters and the form becomes inarticulate. Impatience and inattention mark the work of a beginner.
In contrast, Chinese brush calligraphy on mulberry paper is almost the opposite. Mulberry is hungry—it reaches where ahar paper is the lover who waits. In brush calligraphy, hesitation marks the line of a beginner; elegance is traded for blots and pools, for fear made visible.
To press into the limits of both styles makes their possibilities visible. Brush and reed meet in Sini style, slipping also between vertical and horizontal spatial compositions.
As the size of the reed increases, it demands a greater circumference of motion. Finness first found in the small joins of one’s fingers extends into elbow and shoulder, making the link between body and writing more obvious. That wild, beautiful physicality from which all communication springs—place I pull something from deep inside and offer it out in a manner that can be shared.
Acrylic ink blend on vintage cotton/ polyester. Worn to red carpet event at Fez Music Festival in Morocco, 2018.
The back text is a contemporary inspiration, based roughly on the Sini style. Sini is the place Chinese and Islamic letter forms, styles, and aesthetics meet. The text reads la ilaha ilallah, “there is no God but God”. The front breast detail is in Thuluth. It is the second part of the shahada and reads, muhammadanrasulallah, “and Muhammad is His messenger.”
The wearer is pressed between two texts like worlds. He becomes a walking testament of faith, keeping tradition near his heart and an inspired flow at his back, working out the space between in each moment.
Tracing locations of culture and personhood, Homi Bhabha contemplates How Newness Enters the World. He writes that it’s through ‘splitting and displacement’ that ‘the architecture of the new historical subject emerges at the limits of representation itself’. Some things break, others get born in places of unspeakable rupture.
Perhaps what looks like a splitting is at other times a brave insistence on wholeness—a rupture, not in personhood, but methods of categorization, power, and control. It speaks in all directions at once, refusing to pick between the place one is from and the place one is headed— between the footprints of one’s father and the stranger’s shadow found pressed into the recesses where one’s own feet have been.
From me to You, a heart has no meaning. From me to You, everyone of my limbs is a heart—al Shildī (d. 945)
There is no God but God.
Worn composition/ fashion, is a place to explore text and tradition through embodiment. Not just the Word, but it’s lived realities, translations, and transformations. And the place where it breaks.
The boundary, as Sarte would say, is a loose tooth.
Diligent lettering technique is just one part of calligraphic practice. There is also the more illusive element of “flow”. Without flow, even the most precise renderings leave one longing for a deeper elegance. Flow is a natural principle of ink, and of the smooth surface of the paper used to practice Arabic script. Flow is a kind of head-space, a full, consistent, and focused immersion. One disappears into the work at hand.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described flow as autotelic—something whose purpose is in and of itself. Flow is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It is a state of authenticity and truth-telling.
Should a professional athlete have either victory or defeat in their mind at the time of performance, there is a part of them not in the game. They are divided between a present act and some other place, some goal or measure held up in the perceptions and edicts of others. Divided attention is not flow. Neither arrogance nor insecurity is flow.