My work uses the aniconic but culturally rooted languages of script and geometry to contemplate a timeless reality behind our frantic world.
I shape the ancient Kufi styles to create images where form and meaning are one. Free from iconography, but not obviously legible, the work bypasses the mind to engage a deeper recognition. The geometric compositions refer us not to the world of forms but to a cosmic order; their architectural quality generates a space in which one is held in contemplation and stillness.
The stylised, repeated words that make up each piece endow it with the script’s intrinsic qualities – an affinity with geometry, an inner consonance of shapes and proportions that reflects classical teachings on Beauty – making each piece a self-contained whole. The austere shapes are brought to life by the use of natural materials, with their earthiness and restful imperfection. My colours are hand-prepared and often foraged: In this way, the creative process begins with the alchemical meeting of human consciousness and nature, and the physicality of transforming matter for the sake of Beauty.
Artist books add a personal and tactile experience to this approach, taking art off the wall so it can tell more complex stories that unfold in multiple dimensions.
Treasure boxes shift the focus away from a mostly visual experience to engage all the senses and tell a story in a non-linear manner that is for the user to shape. In this 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 feeling 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 and illustration, her deep connection to this 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’s now drawing on her practitioner’s experience to translate Abbasid-era 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. She teaches Kufi calligraphy and inkmaking at the Arab British Centre, the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and on Domestika. She’s collaborated with the Aga Khan Museum and the Goethe Institute on educational projects, and has done work for the Royal Mint, Apple, Amnesty, BBC Arabic, and the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan. She’s the author of two books on art technology: Inks & Paints of the Middle East and Wild Inks & Paints.
Work included in The Future of Traditions, Writing Pictures: Contemporary Art from the Middle East, Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London Jan-March 2023.
- Work included in The Handmade Book, Cecil H. Green Library, Stanford, Oct 2022 – Feb 2023.
- Group: The Written Word, Woolf Institute, Cambridge 2022.
- Solo: In So Many Words, Pictorem Gallery, London 2019.
- Work included in The Society of Women Artists 2018 Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London.
- Solo: Art in Times of Crisis talk, exhibition and workshops, Raleigh, USA, 2017.
- Group: Lighting the Darkness, London, December 2015.
- Work included in Signs, Traces and Calligraphy, Rose Issa, Beirut, 2015
- Work included in Great Lebanese Painters of the Jihad and Farouk Abillama Collection, Beirut, 2014
- Sharjah Art Museum’s 5th Summer Art Festival, 2014
- Kuwait’s 6th International Islamic Arts Convention, 2013-14
- Group: Maktoob: Contemporary Calligraphy, Maasser Beiteddine, Lebanon, 2012
- Harvard Fine arts Library Special Collections, MA, USA
- Stanford Libraries Gunst Collection, CA, USA
- Contemporary British Published Collections, The British Library, UK
- The Khayrallah Center, NCSU, USA
- The KA Collection, Lebanon
- Gallery One, King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, KSA
- The Jihad and Farouk Abillama Collection, Lebanon
Talks & Lectures
- The Art of Letting Go, keynote lecture to conclude “The Handmade Book” exhibition and open “Uncertainty and the Handmade” collegium, Stanford Libraries, January 2023
- A Conversation Between Calligraphers, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, January 2023
- Magical Inks of Ghāyat al-Hakim, “Science and Craft” conference, Warburg Institute, University of London, January 2023
- Al-Qalalusi’s Colour Palette, Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, London, October 2022
- Artist Books Now, British Library, London, May 2019.
- Art in Times of Crisis, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, 2017
- Living With Mystery panel, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, March 2016
- Diploma in Traditional Arts from the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, 2013
- Assistant and apprentice to Master Samir Sayegh, Beirut, 2007-2012
- BGD (Bachelors of Graphic Design), American University of Beirut, 2001
Professional Experience (2013 on)
- Aga Khan Museum, online workshop, October 2022
- Mentor for the Goethe Institute’s Circular Design, autumn 2022
- Tutor in medieval Islamic art technology and calligraphy at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, 2022- ongoing
- Designs for the Royal Mint, 2021 – ongoing
- Consultant for Apple Inc. 2016 – ongoing
- Tutor in Kufic Calligraphy at the Arab British Centre, London, April 2014 – ongoing
- Calligraphy workshops at universities including Badr International Study Centre, University of Manchester, UCL since 2014
- Designs for BBC Arabic Aan Korb awards, October 2014
- Contributor, Tuts+ online courses 2013-2016
- iTV Anglia, 12 June 2022
- The Anglo-Arab Voice podcast, March 2022 (audio)
- Art Illuminated podcast with Esra Elhamal, 2018 (audio)
- Interview by Sara Darwish for NCSU, 2017 (audio)
- Interview by Gena El Aker (video)
- Al Kashaf, Al Araby TV (5 April 2016)
- Living the Life, Islam Channel TV (8 March 2016)
- Al Nashra Finance
- Technology of the Heart