The first seeds of my artistic practice were planted in the darkness of the civil war that defined my childhood. I escaped the chaos and fear by turning inwards; there I found order and permanence, a deeper reality that still sustains me. This is now the core of my work: I look for the greater truths behind personal feelings and outer events, and translate them into form to give the viewer a taste of the wholeness and mystery that underly our brittle world. I use a visual language rooted in my native culture: an ancient Arabic script which I shape to create images made of meaning. Free from iconography, but not obviously legible, the work bypasses the mind to engage a deeper recognition and hold the viewer in stillness.
I have used a variety of mediums, but now prioritise sustainability and respect for the living world. By hand-preparing or even foraging natural colours, I’m involved in the creative act from its earliest starting point, the alchemical process of transforming matter for the sake of Beauty.
With my Artist Books, I take art off the wall so it can tell more complex stories that unfold in multiple, tactile dimensions. My Treasure Boxes involve all the senses along with non-linear storytelling; in their context, objects we consider trivial become centres of meaning, their simple beauty revealed. But while the boxes hint at meaning, they never actually tell: the tension between not-knowing and longing to know is held, the sense of mystery preserved.
Joumana Medlej is an artist, author and educator from Lebanon, best known for her work with early Arabic calligraphy, from which her visual language is derived. After an early career in graphic design, illustration, comics and even digital games, her deep connection to the Kufi tradition was awakened during the years she assisted master Samir Sayegh in his Beirut studio. She also specialises in the art materials of that period: having abandoned store-bought paints for the old ways of natural colour-making, she prepares her own supplies using medieval techniques, and forages for pigments and dyes wherever she finds herself. She draws on her practitioner’s experience to translate early Arabic manuals into English and bring the voices of past masters to a general audience.
Joumana is now based in East London and works out of her Hackney Wick studio. Her work is found in private and public collections in Europe, the USA and the Middle East. She teaches Kufi calligraphy and inkmaking at the Arab British Centre, the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and other institutions upon request. She’s collaborated on educational projects with the Aga Khan Museum and the Goethe Institut, and has done work for the Royal Mint, Apple, Amnesty, BBC Arabic, and the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan. She’s authored and published books on art technology (Inks & Paints of the Middle East, 2020; Wild Inks & Paints, 2021) and on forgotten aspects of the Arabic letters (Stories of Abjad, 2023).
Born 1979 in Beirut, Lebanon.
Lives and works in London, UK.
2013 Diploma in Traditional Arts from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London
2007–2012 Assistant and apprentice to Master Samir Sayegh, Beirut, Lebanon
1997-2001 BGD (Bachelors of Graphic Design), American University of Beirut, 2001
Solo & TRIO Exhibitions
2022 The Written Word, The Woolf Institute, Cambridge, UK
2019 In So Many Words, Pictorem Gallery, London, UK
2017 Art in Times of Crisis, The Crafts Center at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA
2015 Lighting the Darkness, The Crypt Gallery, London, UK
2012 Maktoob: Contemporary Calligraphy, Art Lounge, Maasser Beiteddine, Lebanon
Selected group Exhibitions
2023 Highlights, Ithra Museum, King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
2023 Through the Looking Glass, Swanfall Art, Mall Galleries, London
2022–23 The Handmade Book, Stanford Libraries, USA
2020 Works selected for the Sharjah Biennale 2020 (cancelled due to the pandemic)
2019– Treasures of the British Library, The British Library, London
2018 The Society of Women Artists Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London
2015 Signs, Traces and Calligraphy, Rose Issa Projects, Beirut, Lebanon
2014 Great Lebanese Painters of the Jihad and Farouk Abillama Collection, Beirut, Lebanon
2014 Fifth Summer Art Festival, Sharjah Art Museum, UAE
2013–14 Kuwait’s Sixth International Islamic Arts Convention, Kuwait
- Princeton University Firestone Library Special Collections, Princeton, USA
- The Psyche Collection, Paris, France
- Harvard Fine Arts Library Special Collections, Cambridge, USA
- Stanford Libraries Gunst Collection, Stanford, USA
- Contemporary British Published Collections, The British Library, London, UK
- The Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, Raleigh, USA
- Gallery One, King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
- The Jihad and Farouk Abillama Collection, Beirut, Lebanon
2023 (upcoming) Arteventura, Aracena, Spain
2017 Artist in Residence, The Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, Raleigh, USA
Publications & Press
- Press for Lebanon | Untitled: Arab News (+video), The National, L’Orient-Le Jour, Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
- Press for The Future of Traditions: The National, Because Magazine.
- Press for The Written Word: BBC, Cambridge Independent, iTV Anglia (12 June 22), BBC One Sunday Morning (25 July 22).
- The New Arab, July 2023
- The Dark Mountain Project, June 2023
- The Anglo-Arab Voice podcast, March 2022
- Art Fervour, Nov. 2020
- Middle East Eye, 2019
- Art Illuminated podcast, 2018
- Al Kashaf, Al Araby TV, 5 April 2016
- Femme Magazine, 2015
- El-Iktisad, 2015
teaching & talks
2023 Translation through Praxis, lecture with demonstration for ‘Decoding Recipes’ conference, University of Sheffield
2023 My Journey with Kufi: Freedom in Restriction, online lecture, Letterform Archive
2023 The Art of Letting Go, keynote lecture for the Collegium ‘Uncertainty and the Handmade’, Stanford Libraries, USA
2023 A Conversation Between Calligraphers, panel, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London
2023 Magical Inks of Ghāyat al-Hakim workshop for ‘Science & Craft’ conference, Warburg Institute, London
2022– Tutor in medieval Islamic art technology and calligraphy, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London
2022 Al-Qalalusi’s Colour Palette, lecture, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London
2022 Introduction to Manuscript Kufi, online workshop, Aga Khan Museum
2022 Mentor for Circular Design Training Program, Goethe Institut
2019 Artist Books Now, panel, British Library, London
2017 Art in Times of Crisis, lecture, The Crafts Center at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, USA
2016 Living With Mystery, panel, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, London
2014– Tutor in Kufi scripts, Arab-British Centre, London