One doesn’t have to travel all the way to the Middle East to discover talented artists. In the Low Countries, too, many artists are creating works inspired by their (Arab and/or Islamic) background. There are works by Nuhr Smahane, Abdo Hammiche, and Ahlya Zahnoun, among others. The most appealing to yours truly is the Tifinagh calligraphic series by Ahlya Zahnoun, as I myself am firmly rooted in Berber soil too. (Tifinagh is the original script of the Berber languages.) Apart from these series she also produces canvases that can be grouped into the Latin and Arabic (character) series of canvases. I will zoom in on the Tifinagh works as this kind of art is quite rare.
Let’s rewind. Tifinagh, Berber? Berbers or Imazighen (plural of Amazigh) are to be distinguished ethnically, culturally and linguistically from the Arabs who invaded North Africa in the 7th century CE. Their ethnical identity is very important for the Imazighen; especially Amazigh women keep their identity alive by way of various forms of artistic expression, mostly arts and crafts (textiles, jewelry and music). Those arts symbolize social values, identity and individuality. However, the contemporary visual Amazigh art is a rather recent phenomenon.
In the world of painting there are some contemporary artists who are contributing to Amazigh art, like Adallah Aourik and Fatima Mellal. The painters, among whom we can find Imazighen and Arabs, are inspired by the artistic heritage of the Imazighen to create a new style of painting emphasising Morocco’s cultural and ethnic diversity. For the Imazighen this art is not just a form of expression and communication; it is a way to perpetuate Berber cultural heritage and traditions, too.
Ahlya Zahnou is a Moroccan Belgian who moved to Dubai. She majored as an interior decorator and started drawing at a very early age. She has no artistic background but came to be inspired by her surroundings. “I acquired a taste for ‘the letter’ when I was 17, which led me to start experimenting. My sketches were introduced to a teacher in Arabic evening school, who encouraged me to carry on.” Ahlya followed his advice and got involved in all kinds of social and cultural events in Belgium and the Netherlands, where she presented her works predominantly in the Arabic version.
When she was 25 she came into contact with a group studying their Amazigh identity. There she discovered the Tifinagh alphabet. “My parents hail from the Rif mountain range. We grew up in the (Berber) Riffian dialect. It didn’t seem out of the normal to experiment with that, too. My mother used to use all these proverbs, they’re really hilarious. And that way one sort of preserves the heritage. This is disappearing bit by bit, with our parents, and there are many children who don’t even speak their mother tongue correctly anymore,” Ahlay explains. She saw this as a challenge to start experimenting with it. Now, she is designing her own set of characters in every language and script she masters, and translates those on canvas. The artist uses paper, canvas, various types of paint and colouring materials. In the Latin series Ahliya elaborates universal themes like love, hope, faith and freedom. By contrast, the Tifinagh and Arabic series are interpretations of the expressions depicted.
“They are typical Riffian, Tamazight or Shilha sayings.”
Shtheh i atha’ar, `enezh i athehsha: ‘Sing for a deaf person, dance for a blind person.’
Meaning: ‘being utterly useless’
Wa tzizha as3oun, hama wa ikatou: ‘Don’t stretch the rope too much, or it will tear.’
Meaning: ‘give it slack rope to prevent worse.’
“I prefer to work with expressions as they allow the canvas to not only represent colour and shape, but also carry a value,” Ahlya confirms. Her works look quite calligraphic, but she herself doesn’t call it calligraphy. “It’s not really a single discipline. It’s not really calligraphy, because then you’d use pens, whereas I draw my letters with a paint brush. It is a cross-breed of calligraphy and drawing.”
Arabic & Latin works by Ahlya Zahnoun:
Photos: © Redouan Tijani
This post is also available in: Dutch