Sotheby’s London recently hosted the launch of a lavishly illustrated art book on calligraphy co-authored by curator Rose Issa and by Venetia Porter, the British Museum’s curator of Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art.

“Signs of Our Times: From Calligraphy to Calligraffiti” examines how artists from the Arab world and Iran have used words and letters in their work over the past 60 years. Forty leading artists are represented – among them a diverse group of Iranians including Parviz Tanavoli, Shirin Neshat, Siah Armajani, Parastou Forouhar and Bita Ghezelayagh. The book’s other co-author is Juliet Cestar, a writer on contemporary Middle Eastern art.

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Rose Issa (left) and Venetia Porter (middle) at Sotheby’s panel discussion on “Sign of the Times” calligraphy book

“I heard several times that it’s not trendy to talk about calligraphy, and it’s not fashionable,” said Rose Issa in a Sotheby’s panel discussion held on the same day and moderated by the British Museum’s Venetia Porter. “The reason is that people think it belongs to the ’50s and ’60s.”

“It’s true that in the 1950s, after independence, everybody wanted to have their own aesthetic. So in order to have your own original aesthetic and not to compete with the Western styles and [resort to] imitation, they used their own script,” she explained.
The panelists emphasized that calligraphy remained a very current part of the visual vocabulary.

The book is divided into three sections, each dedicated to a different generation of artists: the pioneers, the second generation, and the contemporary practitioners.

“Signs of Our Times” is available from Merrell Publishers