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