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PhD defence

Unified multiplicities: Arabic letters between modernity, identity, and abstraction

Thursday 24 October 2019
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden

The art movement of Letterist Abstraction, also called Hurufiyah, Letterism, Calligraphism, or the Calligraphic School of Art, which started with the decolonization of the Arab world in the early 1940s, faces two forms of criticisms. On the one hand, it is hailed as liberating Arabic calligraphy from its association with the sacred text. Its’ artists are acknowledged as pioneers through their novel treatment of Arabic texts as manifestations of informing a new modernist experimentation, and new Arab identity on the global art arena. On the other hand, this same movement is perceived as a visual language lacking in imagination, serving conservative agendas by only utilizing the Arabic text and its archaic forms as a main vehicle to reinforce traditional views on modern art in and from the Arab and Islamic worlds. Even though the artistic style started almost seven decades ago, there has been no comprehensive study for a critical analysis of the artistic production or of the artists of this movement. By reviewing currently available research on the topic and by conducting field research I propose a new method for analysing and understanding paintings that use Arabic letters in their composition. The research yields a tool by means of which Arabic letterist abstraction works of art can be understood in relationship to each other. Contextualization of artists and their background was also necessary for the understanding of the movement. Finally, a case study utilizing the artistic production of the artist Samir Sayegh.


  • Prof. E.J. van Alphen
  • Prof. S.M. Hassan (Cornell University)


PhD defences are free; you do not have to register.

PhD dissertations

PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally after the defence through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

Press contact

Maarten Muns, Scientific Communications Adviser, Leiden University
+31 71 527 3282

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