Joumana Medlej: Calligraphy artist and Kufi knowledge sharer

Joumana Medlej
7 min read
13 July, 2023

I meet Joumana Medlej at her East London studio during the last days of a June heatwave. She had warned me about “the mess” but her sunlit space is tidy and organised, just like I had imagined it from her geometrical artworks that draw inspiration from the Kufic script of Arabic.

There are bamboo sticks for her calligraphy pens, works-in-progress, finished works, rulers, cutting tools, walnut shells as painting vessels, and shelves filled with natural dried pigments labelled in glass bottles.

Joumana creates art on paper as well as multidimensional paper sculptures, uplifting the beauty of Lettrism which does not require Arabic literacy to appreciate.

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She unfolds a copy of The Book of Ruinations (2023), one of such paper sculptures that includes a gold-plated chain, on which a hand-drawn circle and cut-out calligraphic shapes expand.

Supported by the chain which acts as a thread and compass, the last page of the artwork disintegrates when it becomes saturated by symbols, when “there is no longer a centre that can hold.”

Joumana Medlej: Calligraphy artist and Kufi knowledge sharer
Joumana Medlej in her studio [Farah Abdessamad]

The accordion-like form reminds me of Etel Adnan’s leporellos, who, like Joumana, is Lebanese.

The Book of Ruinations, like much of Joumana’s other works, exudes movement, tension, precision, and wholesomeness in absence.

“Geometry is the most universal language there is... every scribe has its own individuality within the broad Kufi tradition"

As often happens, a fateful encounter changed the course of her life. When Modernist pioneer Samir Sayegh invited her to join his Beirut studio in 2007, Joumana began a journey towards self-expression, using Kufic (or Kufi) – an angular medieval Quranic script in use from the 7th to 12th century – as a springboard for artistic experiments.

“It was a script made consciously beautiful, worthy of transcribing the Quran,” Joumana says. After learning under the guidance of Sayegh for several years, she moved to the UK and immersed herself in historical research. “I went through all the books in the British Library,” she recalls.

Joumana Medlej
Shadows by Joumana Medlej

Kufic, or Kufi as Medlej prefers, combines various qualities: aesthetical, spiritual, and physical. Because it was used for religious texts, the script carries an inherent form of mysticism and elevation.

“You can’t go quickly or lose focus,” she says, “it’s very architectural and it bends the natural tendencies of the hand.”

One of the earliest Kufi inscriptions can be read on the Dome of the Rock. Joumana shares that one needs to be in a certain state and her deep focus is visible in the application of her line work and paint. I can sense the hard-learned lessons of accidental blotches and mistakes.

She shows me a prototype of The Book of Abjad, a project she’s been crowdfunding and which has already harnessed interest from institutions.

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This artwork, which she hopes to complete by autumn, interrogates the unseen and transcendence, via letters and numbers, an alphanumerical system used by Arabs, called abjad or hisab al-jummal.

“Geometry is the most universal language there is,” she reflects, adding that “every scribe has its own individuality” within the broad Kufi tradition.

Joumana Medlej in her studio. Credits: Farah Abdessamad
Natural materials and pigments. Studio visit [Courtesy Joumana Medlej and Farah Abdessamad]

In addition to letters-as-numbers, spaces that can be intentionally filled or left empty, colours add another dimension to the work. “Red is always going to make you feel a certain way,” Joumana says, struggling to find the right words to translate her personal, intimate interaction with a darker red.

“Gold is truth; it never tarnishes.” I consider how the metal’s origin as stardust connects us with cosmologies that unite various cultures.

For Joumana, her investigation of colour hails to her deep respect for tradition and an unbound curiosity. Transitioning from store-bought to natural pigments – never flat, containing a “qi” or fundamental flow and energy – was a no-brainer once she found out it was a possibility.

She forages earth pigments from Lebanon’s mountains, where they are “very visible” due to the discernible strata of soil, and sometimes she goes on these errands with family. After pilling and cleaning the earth with water, she lets the sediments drop at the bottom, and empties the vessel, a simple process she describes as “old as dirt”. Then she waits until the pigment dries.

Earth ranges from white to pink via oranges, browns, and greys. For watercolour-like effects, she mixes the pigments with gum Arabic or egg whites. The fleeting aspect of plant-based pigments deliberately underscores fading and ephemerality.

On a scorching day like the day we meet, she points to one of her works-in-progress standing on a table and the extent to which heat altered the value of a green.

“I found creativity during the war... But all the great creatives have been through hell”

I ask Joumana about the historical legacies of pigments that were highly prized and (often violently) extracted by the West before synthetic colours appeared with the industrial revolution. We pause on lapis lazuli, an intense blue mined in Afghanistan which enhanced the richness of Marian robes in Renaissance paintings.

Joumana notes that the context of her work is sensitive to a non-Western practice. During medieval times, Western Asia was already linked by global routes, a trade that allowed for the circulation of goods and people.

The Islamic Golden Age embraced a vast empire, and much before then, ancient Egyptians used lapis lazuli in jewellery. She has a stock of lapis acquired years ago and wonders about the ethical considerations that might underpin sourcing the pigment from a Taliban-controlled country. She cares.

With Joumana, we often travel in time and space in the course of our conversation. The past influences the present just as today illuminates how we interpret yesterday. We then move to consider the limits of our perception and the deeper, pure meaning that artworks hold.

“I found creativity during the war,” Joumana remembers. She was a child when the Lebanese civil war raged. “But all the great creatives have been through hell.”

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You won’t hear her complain about those days. Hardship is an engine, a path towards self-understanding. “You can’t make gold until you deal with less precious materials,” she says, quoting the alchemical notions of repeated distillations and purification processes. Elements and matter are vehicles, a means for transmutation, not an end.

She’s someone who constantly questions, checks, and verifies. As an abstract artist, it’s important for her to make sure that the original essence of her work isn’t lost when her idea turns into a physical object.

There’s the craft, a practice gained through skills and ethos, and there’s something more for her, a hidden part of ourselves that shapes the overall intent and outcome of a piece.

Heavenly Spheres أفلاك
Heavenly Spheres أفلاك by Joumana Medlej

Is it different being a woman, I ask. “It is,” she admits. For one, she wouldn’t be able to follow her passion centuries ago. And it’s also a singularity that animates humility, a desire to learn, inquire, and share the fruit of her work with others through teachings, books, and speaking engagements.

She calls herself a “knowledge keeper” but knowledge sharer feels more appropriate to me when I came across her translations of Al Razi’s ink-making treatise dating from the 10th century or her practical guides to geometry.

Why shouldn’t it be accessible after all? “By the way, Kufi is not from Kufah,” she chuckles. Grounding her work in solid historical research allowed her to dispel some myths. In that quiet rigour, she couldn’t be further away from the people that occasionally mansplain her own work to her on social media. Apparently, “calligraphy bros” exist.

After two hours of discussing the potency of art and geometry, I lean into a meditative state in which shapes lose their first appearance to englobe something more, something sacred.

I let silences become unspoken sentences. “If you can get the perfect aliph, the paper will split, as goes the saying.” I believe her.

Farah Abdessamad is a New York City-based essayist/critic, from France and Tunisia

Follow her on Twitter: @farahstlouis