Osman Andrew Young is recognized by his students and colleagues at the American University in Cairo (AUC) for being a brilliant professor. He teaches with passion and is his humor makes students clamor for the limited spaces in his classes.
Both his humor and passion are evident in his latest works, a series on the Islamic phrase “Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim (In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful). Even though Young is working with a single phrase, the forms he creats are remarkably diverse.
Working on reproductions mostly of famous examples of calligraphy, Young puts a new spin on a very classic art form.
The subjects he works with are “intrinsically powerful. It’s an honor to be working with them, he said proudly and mockingly of himself, reflecting a signature British humor.
Young works a traditional Moroccan script in varying shades of bright blue onto a red background with a gold patina. With the script’s characteristic curves, sweeping strokes and color choices for tashkeel (the vowel accents decorating Arabic script), viewers get a bold piece of calligraphy.
He reproduces the first example of a “Bismillah done in Kufi script, which has no accents and is rigid in its lines, on a grey blue background. The script itself is a dulled navy. It is very minimal, and a case of “the oldest text looking the most modern, points out Young.
Young has mostly exhibited at AUC’s galleries over the past 10 years, but starting today, he will be exhibiting at the Jawhara Gallery in Zamalek.
“I have been a little bit reticent about showing myself in the art world, he said. “One friend said to me ‘painters paint, writers write, just get on with it.’ That’s one of the nice things about having an exhibit outside AUC, I’m in the public domain now and that’s kind of nice but I have to be aware not to go on an ego trip because that would be counter-productive to my spiritual path.
Young is a long time convert to Islam, and has grappled with the paradox of being both an artist and a Sufi. “Tariqa is about training your ego down. And today to be an artist, you have to be a figure.
But his pieces should reassure him. They are fundamentally a homage in the freshest way. Taking traditional styles of script, they have been jazzed up in their colors and their backgrounds. Rather than demure green, matt red and ubiquitous black, Young uses turquoise, lapis lazuli blue, lilacs, fire engine reds, oranges and purple. The result is nothing short of ‘pop calligraphy.’
“The one piece of advice my art master gave at school was ‘be bold!’ That’s what I’m trying at last to do really, he said.
Young has received no formal academic art training. Having studied art history, he approaches his own art with an intelligence stemming from a study of art theory. He began to paint and experiment when he moved to Egypt 25 years ago, starting with geometric shapes and patterns.
“In the last year I’ve been allowing myself to grow and have fun and play. I think in the past, yes, I was worried about upsetting people, he said.
Young is referring to his child-like choices of using concentrated color as well as to the hand prints which serve as a background. These are a direct reference to the superstitious belief of warding off the evil eye by placing a hand print at the door of one’s home.
“[My] dilemma was being expressive and having fun and keeping the calligraphy traditional, said Young. “I kept faithful to the calligraphy, but went crazy with the color.
But Young has also been very original. Several exhibited pieces are large close-ups of calligraphy he’s done before.
One red and green canvas highlights the letters forming the word “Al-Rahman, with an emphasis on the letters “rahm which refers to the word “mercy and also “womb. Young plays with the notion of where everything comes from. “This rahma hopefully, he said.
A roundel of the original calligraphy that inspired this piece was added to the canvas, emphasizing Young’s studied appreciation of the subject matter he is working with.
Another fantastic piece composed as a close-up is the letter “Beh of the Bismillah. A matt background with glossy calligraphy, which was inspired by the incorporated stone and ceramic work that represent Islamic architecture, the piece is moving but not in a sober way. “It’s abstracted to the point so it is playful and light, said Young.
As for his focus on the word “Bismillah, Young said; “The whole of the Quran is in the Fatha (the first chapter of the Quran) and the whole of the Fatha is in the Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim, and the whole of the Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim is in the noqtoa (dot) under the letter ba’e… It’s the point of origin. It s singleness relates to the singleness of Allah and it’s the point in creation where everything else is manifested.
“It’s a bit difficult to talk about some of these things, because they’re sort of.mystical. Well mysticism, the root of the word is ‘mu’ in Greek which is also the same root for ‘mute’. They are beyond words. The calligraphies are full of unlimited meaning.
One of his boldest pieces is designed in the form of a digital print. One print currently hangs in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and is composed of 40 multicolored squares with the single word of “Hu’a or ‘him’ in each square.
Entitled ‘Pop Zikr,’ “it’s Andy Warhol goes to zikr, without any irreverence to zikr, said Young. “It takes all the seriousness out of it. It’s fresh and fun.
Using Arabic calligraphy means that there is meaning there. There are oceans of meaning and endless interpretation. Every time you say it [bismillah] it’s fresh.
Young’s work might or might not ruffle feathers once exhibited, but it most certainly is novel. It is a lesson on how to see art from a different perspective, to drop the lens that force us to view art in the most constraining and traditional forms, with less pomp and circumstance, and a little more pop and color.
Jawhara’s Gallery: 157 26th of July Street. 3rd Floor, Apt. on right. (Formerly known as Espace Karim Francis)March 24 – 26, 12-8 pm.