April 15, 2020
By Yunzhi Pan
When it comes to thinking about Arab modern art, it is nearly impossible to overlook the impact of the Hurufiyyah movement. Beginning in the 1940s and lasting into the 1980s and beyond, artists in this loosely defined movement introduced Islamic calligraphy into modern visual art practice. Many of them were influenced by Sufism’s Hurufi doctrine, codified in the 14th and 15th centuries, in which Arabic letters were conceived as embodying divine and mystical knowledge.
Among the many artists associated with the Hurufiyyah movement who are featured in Grey Art Gallery’s exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s is Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi. Born in 1947 into a family of Qur’anic scholars, Koraïchi was first trained as a calligrapher before studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Algiers. From 1967 to 1977, he continued his art education in Paris at the Écoles des Beaux-Arts and the Écoles des Arts Décoratifs. Throughout his prolific career spanning four decades, Koraïchi continued to explore calligraphic forms and patterns from various cultures, from Chinese ideograms to pre-Islamic Amazigh scripts. The artist’s family name “Koraïchi” derives from the word “Qurashite”, an ancestral vocation devoted to transcribing Quranic texts in Algeria. As a modern artist, Koraïchi expanded the scope of this time-honored tradition to reveal the expressiveness of calligraphy as an art form for a global audience.
In Koraïchi’s two works on view at the Grey Art Gallery, Sans toi, ni moi, ou l’hallucination nostalgique (Without You, or Me, or the Nostalgic Hallucination) and Cet espace incrusté de nos destins (This Space is Inlaid with Our Destinies), the artist filled clay tablets with calligraphic patterns written in ink. Each work features a large letter resembling a Chinese character surrounded by small, densely-packed Arabic script. While at first glance these works invite a literal reading, the writings are not entirely legible. The large “Chinese” character at the center of each work does not correspond to any actual Chinese character. Moreover, as the Grey’s former graduate intern Lara Arafeh has noted, the Arabic scripts seen here are mirrored images of actual Arabic letters. These deviations from traditional Chinese and Arabic letterforms greatly complicate the works’ meaning.
One possible explanation for Koraïchi’s unique rendering of Arabic letters draws on Islamic and Sufi teachings about written texts. According to one of the hadiths (recorded words of the prophet Muhammed not included in the Qur’an), “[t]he Qur’an has an exoteric and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning itself has an esoteric meaning, and so on, for seven esoteric meanings.” As such, readers of sacred texts are encouraged not to take words at face value, but rather to search for their hidden and more profound meanings. By rendering the Arabic letters in reverse, Koraïchi forces the viewer to ponder the scripts in order to unveil their true meanings. Here, the viewer’s attempt to understand the mirrored texts serves as a metaphor for the search for greater truths concealed beneath outward appearances.
Mirrors and reflection are also leitmotifs in the great Sufi poet Rumi’s writings about artistic creation. According to Rumi, an artist’s highest achievement does not lie in their technical proficiency, but rather in the “purity” of their heart, which serves as a mirror to reflect the infinite and transcendent beauty created by God. “The totality of forms is only a reflection in the water of the stream: if your eyes were open, you would know that in reality all forms are He.” Viewed through Rumi’s lens, Koraïchi’s mirrored reflections of Arabic texts provide a gateway leading the viewer toward sublime revelations.
Of course, this does not account for the strange and incomprehensible Chinese characters in Koraïchi’s works, which are open to interpretation. They remind me of the pseudo-Chinese characters invented by contemporary Chinese artists such as Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, who also explore the plurality of meanings embodied in written language. While it is unclear whether these three artists from different regions of the world exerted any influence on one another, their investigation into the aesthetics and ambiguity of calligraphy constitutes a significant contribution to the modern and contemporary art canon.
“Rachid Koraichi.” Barjeel Art Foundation, www.barjeelartfoundation.org/artist/algeria/rachid-koraichi/.
Maryline Lostia, “Rachid Koraïchi: A Celestial Architecture,” Universes in Universe – Worlds of Art (March 2003), universes.art/en/nafas/articles/2003/rachid-koraichi.
“Rachid Koraïchi,” Aicon Gallery, www.aicongallery.com/artists/rachid-korachi/biography.
Yunzhi Pan is an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She expects to receive a B.S. in Media, Culture, and Communication and a B.A. in Art History from New York University in May 2021.