A brief formal analysis of Madiha Umar’s ‘At the Concert’

In At the Concert (1948), Madiha Umar creates new meaning in the art of Arabic script. With the limitation of human-based imagery in Islamic art, the use of calligraphy was widely popular among artists, who were able to imbue the script with both classical and contemporary stylings. The letters themselves allow the artist to represent his own heritage and still be accepted within the prevailing Western art culture.  They are of old, yet hold current relevancy, harkening the viewer to an ancient time while still representing a huge part of the modern day beliefs of Muslims. In Umar’s work, the alphabet’s mere presence and use on canvas is where its importance and symbolic power lies, and not necessarily its coherence or legibility.

The use of the Arabic alphabet gives the painting motion and fluidity. To the left, a tall character stands above the swirls and lines, like a maestro conducting an orchestra, with an audience of little bright circles surrounding him. The lines and symbols “on stage” are all representative of instruments or instrumentalists created by Arabic letters. Conceptually, the concert is the the sounds of the Arabic language. The letters themselves seem to rise from the stage and form into three dimensional musical notes. And the three-dimensional nature of these notes are what add to the paintings mass, as they add depth to the otherwise two dimensional work.

Color also plays an interesting part in the painting. Traditionally, black ink is used to write upon a lighter surface, allowing for the words to stand out. However, Umar has inverted the tradition. The lines and Arabic letter movements are drawn with white on what seems to be either a completely black or dark blue background. This is a clear divergence from the traditional use of the Arabic language in art. For example, in Hashim al-Khattat’s Untitled, the khat, or calligraphy in Arabic, flourishes across what seems to be a parchment like surface.  The black writing against the tan, sun-dried surface gives the sense of tradition and age. In this more abstract work, Umar instead has made the lines much more vibrant with the use of white, giving a greater sense of modernity,  the letters glowing to the viewer, streaking and twinkling with the stars of the night sky.



One thought on “A brief formal analysis of Madiha Umar’s ‘At the Concert’

  1. Hello Jon, my name’s Dara Kittani and I just read your review of my grandmother’s painting at the concert. Thank you for your interest in her painting and your pointed review. Most people haven’t noticed the details you have, including noted collectors and scholars. I just launched a website to help bring her work back into the light. Please take a look at Madihaumar.com.
    Take care, Dara.


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