Islamic Motifs in Contemporary
Indonesian Painting and Calligraphy.
Making Islamic Art:
The Work of A. D. Pirous
What makes a work of art “Islamic”?
How might Muslims think of art as a religious practice?
How do Muslim artists mix traditional and contemporary
themes, patterns, and images?
Students will read about modern Indonesian artist A. D. Pirous, learning
how the artist uses Qur’anic calligraphy and emblems of Islamic
spirituality to express his identity, which is ethnic, religious, national,
and cosmopolitan at the same time. Students will practice visual skills
by examining and analyzing the paintings by Pirous and investigate additional
examples of Islamic calligraphy from other countries.
Students will be able to:
- Identify elements of Qur’anic calligraphy and emblems of Islam as
found in contemporary art.
- Describe meanings of works of art by analyzing how specific
works are created and how they relate to historical and cultural
- Reflect analytically on various interpretations as a means for
understanding and evaluating works of visual art.
Two class periods
Visual Arts, Literature and Performance
Laurie J. Sears,
section on “Writing Systems and Manuscripts” on incorporation
of Arabic script into local writing systems.
Religious Practices and Cultural Expression
- Background essay by Kenneth M. George
- Seven visuals in color on p. 171 (five visuals by Pirous
and embroidery by Pirous’s mother, two additional for
comparison of use of color, including gold, design and
- “Sura Isra II: Homage to Mother” 1982
- Kasab (embroidery by Hamidah, the mother of A. D.
- “For the Sake of the Sparkling Morning Light,” 1982
- “When the Earth Quakes,” 1982
- “The Night that is More Perfect than a 1000
- “Meditation toward the Enlightened Spirit I,” 2000
- Page from an illuminated Qur’an from Indonesia:
Tafsir Al-Quran, verses in praise of the Prophet.
Arabic and Bugis languages and scripts, p 178
- Qur’anic verses from paintings with annotations for
visuals (#1 and #2 are combined)
- Display the six paintings by Pirous for the class. Before
telling the students the titles of the paintings or what
the calligraphy means, ask them to come up with their
own titles, in order to engage the students directly with
the works of art.
- Share the background essay with students, to provide
context for the visuals.
- Divide students into five groups and provide each member
of the group with the appropriate Qur’anic verses
and Annotations worksheet (include #2, the piece of
embroidery by Pirous’s mother, with #1, “Homage to
Mother”). Ask each group to do a “close reading” of one
painting each. Ask them to choose one representative
of each group to be a “docent,” or museum lecturer,
and give a short presentation on the group’s painting to
the class following the group discussion.
- Have students from each of the five groups make brief
docent presentations to the whole class. Conclude
presentations with a whole class discussion and reflection,
including the following points:
Comparing the six works of art
- What, if anything, do these five paintings have in
common? (All but one include Arabic calligraphy.
All include geometric shapes. All use gold or golden
yellow somewhere in the painting.)
- In what ways are the paintings different from one
another? (Four use geometric forms, triangles or
squares, and one does not. One is figurative. One
does not use calligraphy. Four use borders painted
on two sides or more of the paintings.)
Calligraphy as an art form
- In a work of art which incorporates calligraphy, is it
necessary to understand what the calligraphy says in
order to appreciate the beauty of the artwork?
- Does it change your point of view about any of
Pirous’ paintings to find out what the calligraphy
says and consider the meaning of the text?
- The text is in a language many Americans do not
understand: how important do you think it is for the
viewer to understand the text?
- If you were the curator of an exhibition of the works
of A. D. Pirous, would you include for the viewers
the translations of the calligraphy in each painting
that incorporates it?
Students will be assessed on participation in small group
work, docent presentations, and full class discussion.
Formal assessment of extension exercises provide more
in-depth evaluation of underlying concepts.
This unit utilizes several modes of learning/assessment to
address the strengths of diverse students. Heterogeneous
grouping may provide additional support for diverse learners.
Provide students with copies of the Unit Glossary for
scaffolding reading comprehension.
- Researching Islamic Art
Have students research and report on other works of
calligraphy from other parts of the Islamic world. Each
student should select one to three images to study and
compare with the three paintings of Pirous that incorporate
calligraphy. What are the different media used by
the different calligraphic artists? What were the purposes
of the different art works? Note whether the calligraphy
was used in Qur’anic manuscripts or in other books or
illustrations, in royal seals, in architecture, in objects such
as rugs or lamps, or in works of graphic design, that,
like Pirous’s paintings, have no other use as objects than
to be studied as works of art and religious meditation.
Note when the selected calligraphic works were made
and where. What are some of the most common colors
you see in works of calligraphy? Why do you think those
colors were selected? How do Pirous’ paintings resemble
the other works of calligraphy you found? In what ways
are they very different? Pay special attention to Pirous’
brilliant colors, and the shapes he uses within his compositions.
Also consider the titles Pirous selected for his
paintings, which are very poetic and not just functional.
Do these help you to understand the paintings, or make
their meanings seem more complex to you?
- Calligraphy as an art form
Calligraphy is not only an important part of art and
literature from the Islamic world; it has played a vital
role in European art, especially during the Middle Ages,
East Asian art (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), Tibetan
and Jewish art. It is often, but not always, related to
religion. Using reference and museum sites such as the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, have students research
calligraphy in different traditions and have each choose
a piece of non-Islamic calligraphy, or art incorporating
calligraphy, that he or she particularly likes. Have
students write a brief in-class essay comparing a painting
by Pirous that includes calligraphy with the non-Islamic
piece of calligraphy. How are the letters arranged on the
page in the different traditions? How do the different calligraphers
make use of space? What kind of text is used
in the non-Islamic calligraphy (religious, philosophical,
literary/poetic)? How is the non-Islamic calligraphy combined
with other forms of art, if it is (such as landscapes
or other elements in East Asian painting)?
- Ideas for a studio arts project
Students should then choose a secular or religious text
that is particularly meaningful to them to use as part of
the studio art project. It could be a favorite short poem.
The first step is to have students practice writing their
text as a decorative element. They could use calligraphy
markers or the traditional nib and penholder, or sumi ink
and brush. Students can use whatever language they
want to express their text.
Next students will design a context for the calligraphy
text. This context should integrate the text with the design
as Pirous does. The design can be abstract or realistic.
Students will create a collage on which the text will be
written. Students should consider color, form, symmetry,
etc., when they create their works. The collages should
be on heavy stock paper or illustration board. Some
materials to consider are tissue paper, rice paper, paper
that has been painted, and fabric. Once the collage is
complete students should write their chosen text in the
area of the collage they have left for this purpose. They
could write the text on another piece of paper, which they
then include in the collage.
An extension of this project would be to create the text as
a print medium, for example, as a linoleum print. Various
collages could be created and the student could then
print the text over these collages. This would give the
student an opportunity to see various ways the text can
relate to an image, The result would be a series of pieces
which all have the same text but different ways of using
this text as part of an image.