Mahmoud Taha
Pioneers of Jordan: Mahmoud Taha
Ceramist, Exhibits at Darat El Funun
Nelly Lama, Art and Culture Editor for the Arab Daily
April 8 ,1999



Darat Al Funun houses today an exhibition of the ceramic works of Mahmoud Taha, a leading Jordanian ceramist and connoisseur in the art of Arab calligraphy who is renowned in the Arab world and abroad. The exhibition includes murals, flasks, glazed pottery and ceramic sculpture, all bearing calligraphy as well as regional motifs derived from architecture and crafts.

In the 1950s, Taha started working in Amman as a calligrapher making signs and receiving various calligraphy commissions. In the early sixties, he went to the University of Baghdad to study ceramics and ceramic sculpture, and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1968. In the years 1975-76 he joined the Cardiff College of Art in Wales, UK, studying the British ceramic movement of the past 50 years. Back home, Mahmoud Taha opened his own studio for ceramics, ceramic sculpture and calligraphy. His studio has become a haven for foreign calligraphers who wish to learn about the art of Arab calligraphy.

Mahmoud Taha also teaches this subject in Jordanian schools. He has lectured about the subject in different parts of the world. He has tried his hand at silk screen printing, marbling and all media pertaining to calligraphy, but prefers to work directly in ink with a reed pen of his own making, in the original Arab way. He works clay in many ways: The coil method and wheel throwing for his jars, amphorae, plates and sculpture in the round. He uses the slab method for his murals including low and sunken relief.

As for glazes, he has devised his own formulae to create special effects and develop different colors and shades reminiscent of those used in Samarra and Fostat (prosperous centers of ceramics in Islamic history). He often renders smooth color-glazed areas in low relief standing against a rough background. He sometimes introduces a painterly finish that is quite alien to Islamic ceramics. This finish gives the work a more contemporary feel, averting the commercial effect of ceramic glazed tiles.

As for the use of calligraphy in these works, there is mainly no literal meaning to the calligraphy he uses. "It is rather the letter itself (or the combination of letters) that is the subject matter. It exists as an abstract form, as a decorative whole." The letter becomes a unit or number of intertwining units placed within the bound of architectural motifs like monumental arches.

The ways in which he applies calligraphy to his ceramic forms is interesting. He uses various methods and techniques: making impressions in the surface to produce a sunken relief, or delineating the edges of his letters with etching and filling them in with paint as he does on his monumental flattened flasks. He often build up surfaces to create calligraphy in relief, or simply lets the letters appear in a lower layer of paint that is left apparent in an overlay (a second coat of colored glaze).

Mahmoud does not make preliminary sketches and follow them literally as other artists do. His composition develops as he works. Although his style is easily recognizable, Taha is in constant search for new elements. In the 70s Taha started working on murals where he tackled national themes as well as world issues such as anti-racism in South Africa. Soon, Islamic architectural motifs, both Umayyad and Abbasid, found their way into his work. One could recognize in his work decorative motifs pertaining to other Islamic applied arts such as woodwork, metals, plaster stucco, textile weaving and embroidery motifs including geometric intertwining forms or floral and foliate motifs.

Taha plays around with textures; he moves from the smooth and flat to the mottled, from the scarred to the emaciated. A pronounced development can be seen in his 'globes' where texture goes out of bounds in its raggedness. These globes that carried, in his early phase, human figures representing the destruction and burning of Beirut, and all the pain and torture that went with it, now seem to foam out as if with magma recreating earth forms, natural growths, crevices, tortuous formations. According to Taha, this is due to the use of different clays where one has a higher shrinkage potential than the other. The globes that bear two finishes, a vitrified glaze at the bottom and a matte glaze on top, seem to be most appealing.

Calligraphy appearing on patches, is laid over the turbulent top of the globe, even over the most raucous surfaces coming in as an element of surprise. The use of the "Tughra", the insignia of the Ottoman Sultan or an even finer "Naskhi" mass to such areas is enigmatic, one seeks to understand. All of these formations are rendered in dark earth colors. In his pottery, he tries to marry calligraphy to different forms, which he adopts from other media and other generations. Taha creates other ceramic sculptures this time in disk form. He uses coils of natural clay, vitrified but not colored, to decorate the gently textured color-glazed clay of the disk. Calligraphy in the center of this circular mass is impressed resulting in a sunken relief. Squished slabs of clay fill in a patch in the disk.

Mahmoud Taha reproduces a "Safavid" glass from in clay. He exaggerates its dimensions creating a giant circular flask which he decorates with calligraphic motifs turning it into an almost contemporary novelty. The circular form is rendered with a smooth texture and matte glazing, a gentle combination of two colors brown and blue, and great finesse in the calligraphy reminiscent of Japanese pottery. A counterpoint movement is created in this otherwise stable form when the circular handle swerves backwards pulling the round composition with it to produce a continuous circular movement. Mahmoud Taha creates large plates that he covers in neutral shades incorporating calligraphy, an ever present curvilinear motif, and other geometric motifs. The murals of Taha are almost invariably divided into individual sections filled to the brim with a variety of motifs. They are put together to create one fastidious rectangle.

In his major mural Taha introduces the declaration of "Omar Ibn Al Khattab" when he arrived to Jerusalem, coming from Mekkah. "Omar" was a just man; he vouched to the Bishop of Jerusalem that he and his army would offer them peace and not hurt the people of Jerusalem, their churches, crosses, or possessions. "Omar entered alone on his camel" explains Taha" Omar and his servant took turns riding the camel When he arrived to Jerusalem, the servant was riding the camel and Omar was leading it. The Bishop of Jerusalem realized that this was a very special man with a special mission. "This love of the lyrics is apparent in his mural that represents Jerusalem. The great walls with their crenels appear intermittently. The Dome of the Rock stands majestically with its golden dome pulling the whole composition upwards as if to heaven. On the lower edge of the mural one can recognize the church of the Holy Sepulcher. The color scheme is analogous, the dominant color being green, the color of Islam. Brown, white and gold are also introduced.

On the mottled frame of the mural one can see a "Sura" from the Quran introduced into the paint by fusion. "Glory to God who did take His Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque whose precincts We did bless. Surat 17:1:

On the right side, one sees the large camel of Omar resting. Behind it a whole army in white stands at attention with their golden shields. Individual soldiers appear partially in the doors as if not trusting the pact; their shields are lowered.

The text of the declaration flanks a lower area in the center where the word "Al Quds" (The Arabic for Jerusalem) appears in relief written in intertwined "Naskhi". It is almost lost by the introduction of alien, irrelevant letters that are very symbolic of the state of Jerusalem today.

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