Navina Haidar Portrait

Navina Najat Haidar, curator of the metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of Islamic Art, shares with Selections her insight into the magic to be found in a seemingly simple line.

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954. Ink on paper, originally published in The New Yorker, April 10, 1954 © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954. Ink on paper, originally published in The New Yorker, April 10, 1954 © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I have always loved the effects of a plain line upon a surface. A line gives rise to a drawing, calligraphy or a painting. Even a simple stroke can be fascinating for how it is executed and what it reveals. When, as a young student, I first discovered the cartoons of Saul Steinberg I couldn’t believe that anyone could create such clever and thought-provoking images with a single line.

William Kentridge, Scribble Cat, 2010. Sugarlift aquatint, spitbite aquatint, drypoint and hand-painting on 6 copper plates; Hahnemuhle paper, Natural White 300gsm. Paper: 203 × 179.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
William Kentridge, Scribble Cat, 2010. Sugarlift aquatint, spitbite aquatint, drypoint and hand-painting on 6 copper plates; Hahnemuhle paper, Natural White 300gsm. Paper: 203 × 179.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

William Kentridge’s scribbly cat looks amusing at first glance, sinister at closer inspection, and increases with tension the more you look at it.

Zarina, Home is a Foreign Place, 1999. Portfolio of 36 woodcut chine collé with Urdu text printed on paper and mounted on paper, 27.9 × 21.6 cm © Zarina Hashmi
Zarina, Home is a Foreign Place, 1999. Portfolio of 36 woodcut chine collé with Urdu text printed on paper and mounted on paper, 27.9 × 21.6 cm © Zarina Hashmi

Zarina Hashmi’s minimalist palette and black lines evoke entire worlds, histories and memories. Chaukhat or “threshold” is from her print series Home is a Foreign Place, based on the architecture of her Aligarh family home, a town I know and recognise in her work.

Michal Rovner, Border #8, 1997–98. Paint on canvas, 128.9 × 169.5 cm © Michal Rovner
Michal Rovner, Border #8, 1997–98. Paint on canvas, 128.9 × 169.5 cm © Michal Rovner

The contrast between shadow and light can be powerfully expressive. Border #8 by Michal Rovner shows an almost spectral line – the border between Israel and Lebanon. It speaks volumes in its mood and dark atmosphere.

Howard Hodgkin, Sea, 2010-2012. Oil on wood, 8 1/4 × 10 5/8inches © Howard Hodgkin, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Howard Hodgkin, Sea, 2010-2012. Oil on wood, 8 1/4 × 10 5/8inches © Howard Hodgkin, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Colour, free of form, is most alluring to me, especially when it appears as rich, lustrous and thick paint on a surface. But it’s not always as abstract as it may seem. Howard Hodgkin’s powerful strokes of colour seem as faithful to memory, emotion and subject as representational art.

Bifolium from the “Nurse’s Qur’an” (Mushaf al-Hadina). Folio from an illustrated manuscript, ca. A.H. 410/ A.D. 1019–20. Tunisia, probably Qairawan. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment, 44.5 × 60 cm
Bifolium from the “Nurse’s Qur’an” (Mushaf al-Hadina). Folio from an illustrated manuscript, ca. A.H. 410/ A.D. 1019–20. Tunisia, probably Qairawan. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on parchment, 44.5 × 60 cm

In the Islamic tradition, the art of calligraphy evolves from a mastery of line and form. A bi-folium from the 9th-century Nurse’s Quran is a great example of the elegance and power of the sacred text through shapes of letters executed in ink on vellum.

Shah Quli, ‘Saz’-style Drawing of a Dragon amid Foliage. Illustrated single work, ca. 1540–50. Turkey, Istanbul. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 58.4 × 43.2 cm. credit: Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
Shah Quli, ‘Saz’-style Drawing of a Dragon amid Foliage. Illustrated single work, ca. 1540–50. Turkey, Istanbul. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, 58.4 × 43.2 cm. credit: Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956

Crossovers between style and technique are exciting to discover. The effect of the calligraphic pen is seen in the saz drawings of Ottoman Turkey. Dragon in Foliage by Shah Quli, a late 16th-century Persian artist in Istanbul, is created from an undulating line, which becomes thick and thin like calligraphy as it forms the dragon’s back and the strong curving serrated leaves below.

Attributed to Sahib Ram Head of Krishna: cartoon for a mural of the Raslila, ca. 1800. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 47 × 69.2 cm. Credit: Rogers Fund, 1918
Attributed to Sahib Ram Head of Krishna: cartoon for a mural of the Raslila, ca. 1800. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 47 × 69.2 cm. Credit: Rogers Fund, 1918

Indian drawings are a special favourite of mine. I just installed a Jaipur cartoon of the 19th century in our South Asian gallery. It depicts a dancing girl dressed as the god Krishna, delineated with clean, confident outline, right down to the tendrils of her charming curls.


A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS, THE INTERVENTIONS ISSUE #34, PAGES 115 – 130 AND LIMITED EDITION #50, PAGES 52 – 57.

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