In defence of a remarkable exhibition

The Spirit & Life exhibition

It was rather surprising to find the Spirit & Life exhibition in London dismissed on the Khatt site as just "another Arabic cliché exhibition". In the first place it is not, and nowhere claims to be, an exhibition of Arab(ic) art: its scope is the pre-modern art of the whole Muslim world. Although it includes some very beautiful and important pieces from the Arab world, not least in the realm of calligraphy, it also covers most other Muslim areas, from Turkey to China and S.E.Asia. Neither the catalogue nor anything else in the exhibition asserts that the Muslim world is identical with Arab world, as the reviewer claims.

It is true, however, that this is an historical exhibition, and modern art and design are excluded. It is presented as an exhibition of Islamic art, and this in itself implies an historical approach, since it is questionable whether modern Arab art and design can properly be called "Islamic", although they may draw on Islamic traditions. But the presentation of masterpieces of historic Islamic art, whether in exhibitions or permanent museum displays, cannot reasonably be called a "cliché".

The Spirit and Life show, far from being cliched, contains some remarkably striking and unusual pieces. As well as masterpieces of Qur'anic calligraphy, it includes, for instance, the 11th-century MS of Ibn Sina's great medical work, the Qanun, with its extraordinary title-page design, of which a partial image (but without caption or explanation) appears in the Khatt piece. There is also a fascinating 19th-century Chinese printed book, with Chinese and Arabic printed texts juxtaposed.

But what should be the most interesting item of all for typographers seems to have entirely escaped the Khatt reviewer: an 11th-century document _printed_ in Arabic in the Kufi script, four centuries before Gutenberg.

I strongly recommend this exhibition to anyone interested in Arabic calligraphy, printing and design. Perhaps the reviewer should go and have another look at it.