A Cuban Artist Pays Tribute to Ottoman Calligraphy

An exhibition by a Cuban artist in Istanbul expresses the respect of the artist toward the Ottoman calligraphy and traditional art forms.

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José Parlá (Photo Credit: The Guide Istanbul)

New York-based Cuban Artist José Parlá, in his first exhibition in Turkey, reveals his devotion and deep respect for the traditional art of Ottoman calligraphy with his recent works.

The Turkish exhibition goers and lovers of traditional art will have a great opportunity to evaluate the works of the Cuban artist, a representative of a new breed of global artists whose works entail very diverse themes and topics around the world.

The “ISTHMUS” exhibition in Istanbul ‘74 will take place at the same time along with the 16th Istanbul Biennale this year. Parlá’s acquaintance with the Ottoman calligraphy goes back to his first trip to Istanbul in 1999 when he was inspired and moved by the traditional art he saw during his sojourn in Turkey’s largest city.

He writes in a manifesto about his attraction to calligraphy:

When I first visited Istanbul in 1999, its people and their beautiful environment fascinated me. I felt an immediate connection to the city as somehow it also reminded me of Havana, Cuba, the home of my parents. The energy of the Bosporus River, the walls of the town and the calligraphy inscribed on temple walls were inspiring at first sight.

The “Isthmus” is not an ordinary word chosen by the artist.

“The title Isthmus is a symbolic one for me as it means a narrow strip of land with the sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land. The City of Istanbul, with its infamous river, is part of a strip of land connecting two continents, Asia and Europe, physically, symbolically, and metaphorically connecting the East and the West.”

Whatever its literal and semantic origins, the word’s practical implications for geography still have relevance today. The difference is not on a literal level, but maybe on an aesthetic level, depends on someone’s choosing and taste.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York City, Parlá immersed in graffiti throughout his career. But he was drawn to handwriting in his early childhood in Miami, Florida.

In Parlá’s diverse works shown in the Istanbul exhibition, calligraphy has a central place. But it is also not the only theme of his fascination as he accords more than a passing mention on other areas and forms as well. The entire spectrum of traditional art forms, from hand-crafts to miniatures, from ceramic to other forgotten pieces, find expression in his exhibition designed to pay due homage to Istanbul and it's glorious past.

In collaboration with Gorbon, the company which largely built its brand on evoking and developing traditional Turkish ceramic art, the artist’s some carefully-designed ceramic works also take place in the exhibition.

Parlá’s genre-bending interests and his unlimited fondness for ethnographic and aesthetic roots of other cultures is once more illustrated in Istanbul. For those with an interest in inter-cultural indulgences in art expressions, Parlá’s Istanbul display has a lot to say. It would be a starting point to have a look at others’ outside gaze in Turkey’s traditional art forms, revered by the well-to-do segments of high society, but mostly ignored by the rest of the population and reserved to small confines of cultured people.

The public fondness for calligraphy is no secret. But the fact that we can only have a fleeting glimpse of such art forms in annual or bi-yearly exhibitions, or some training courses by commercialized art foundations is a testament to the fraying state of calligraphy in the public esteem. Whatever lofty the words are by politicians or celebrities, this is where we are now. To appreciate our reverence, we wait for someone from a faraway place to release his works on our traditional art form, only to be reassured that traditional art has not vanished and still alive. This is nothing but delusional. Still, none of this internal debate in our context should deter someone to pass a (positive) judgment on Parlá’s passion and his corresponding tribute to the Ottoman calligraphy and other traditional forms.

The exhibition would be visited until September 28.

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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