'Language is the supreme human achievement and I use letters because I want to focus on Arabic as a subject. The references in old poetry are important because they show the continuity of humankind, bringing us humility and warning us not to abuse our powers and position.'
(The artist quoted in J. Parry "The Power of the Letter: Ali Omar Ermes" in Canvas, 2010, vol. 6, issue 4, p. 86).
Christie's is honoured to be offering the spectacular work The Sixth Ode from the Muallaqat Al Saba'a by the internationally acclaimed artist Ali Omar Ermes to benefit UNHCR. The artist has generously gifted the piece to Middle East-based magazine, Philanthropy Age, to help it support the most worthy regional causes. A proportion of the proceeds will assist the UN agency in its remarkable and continual efforts for refugees from the ongoing crisis in Syria.
Ali Omar Ermes is most recently celebrated for his painting Tawasul Al Himam, or The Continuum of Resolve, commissioned to commemorate and celebrate Dubai, UAE's successful bid to host the World Expo in 2020. Following the award of the Expo to Dubai, the first ever Expo planned for the region, the artwork has quickly won iconic status in the UAE, and is already being hailed as 'The Expo Painting'. It is now in the possession of His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Higher Committee for Dubai Expo 2020.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. UNHCR is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. In more than six decades, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of some 7,685 people in more than 125 countries continues to help some 33.9 million persons.
Over 2.3 million people have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011, in one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Communities in the surrounding countries who are hosting refugees - in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - also need support. Large numbers of refugees are putting a huge strain on community services including water, healthcare, schooling and employment.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
A poet himself, Ermes pays homage to the fine poetry that constitutes the Muallaqat Al Saba'a; seven ancient pre-Islamic poems considered to be the finest pieces of early Arabic poetry. Each describes aspects of cultural, social and political life, as well as love, generosity, bravery and heroism: together the code of moral and ethical values of a society and principles that can be passed from generation to generation. They highlight, and perfectly illustrate, the conscience of a nation.
Using secular inscriptions in his works that take his art beyond the calligraphic traditions of Islamic Koranic and religious connotations (Ermes should not be defined as a calligrapher as his approach rests solely on the exploration of the artistic and expressional possibilities of Arabic letter forms) he harks back to the pre-Islamic tradition of revering or paying homage to eloquence. It was that tradition which placed the famous Seven Odes on the walls of the Ka'bah, intricately and delicately embroidered on the finest silk cloth and hung as pinnacles of poetic expression.
In The Sixth Ode Ali Omar Ermes features the magnificent verse of the warrior-poet Antar Ibn Shaddad, in which he describes his battles with the complexity of life, love and its many dimensions. It is poignant that The Sixth Ode remains just as relevant in the bearing of events of the present day.
A characteristic of his artistic oeuvre, Ermes uses the Arabic script as a subject of his composition focusing on dramatic single letterforms painted with huge brushes. These are then vigourously highlighted by the surrounding scripts of the background in which each of the 85 lines of the poem are expertly included in an array of multiple letters in varying size. The verse fuses together knowledge, experience and history, at the same time as illustrating and defining moral and ethical codes. The large letters that spell Ka la Mun reference the original methodological sequence of the Arabic Abjad Alphabet that was then changed to adapt to Latin alphabetical ordering in 1928. In this original sequence used over several centuries, Ka La Mun means 'to learn'; a key concept emphasised by the artist in his ongoing quest to highlight and teach the power of the Arabic language. Through several layers of a finely elaborate colour palette consisting of opulent oranges, reds and violets interspersed with text and letters, Ermes offers a rich and dazzling textural play, infusing a palpable sense of movement and dynamic multiplicity of forms and shapes. His use of the classical yet notably freer open script of the Maghrebi style that is common in his native North Africa allows each of these letters to take on an exuberant manner as they stretch, curl and intertwine across the expanse of the work's impressive size. The artist's lively compositions are reminiscent of manuscripts or manuscript pages yet manage to celebrate the design of the Arabic script and linear grace in a completely contemporary and relevant manner.