Madiha Umar Iraqi Pioneer Artist 1908- 2005
مديحة عمر من الفنانين العراقيين الرواد 1908-2005

Madiha Umar (1908-2005), Painter and Calligraphy Artist

Madiha Umar (last name also spelled Omar) was a pioneer in the Contemporary art movement of the Arab world, especially in Iraq, and was one of the first Arab American artists to hold a solo exhibit in the United States at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Umar was born in Aleppo, Syria, to a Circassian father and a Syrian mother ; and the family moved to Iraq while she was a young child. As a child growing up in Baghdad, Umar was an admirer and later got influenced by the beautiful and intricate forms of Arabic calligraphy that borders the gates of mosques and their domes and minarets (Burnham). Umar received her secondary education in Beirut, Lebanon, and Istanbul, Turkey. She was one of the first women to receive a scholarship from the Iraqi government to study art in Europe. In 1933, she graduated from Maria Grey Training College in England and then returned to Iraq to teach art at the Teachers Training College for Women, where she later became director of the Department of Arts.

 In 1939, Umar got married to Iraqi diplomat Yasin Umar and then came to the United States in 1942, accompanying her husband to his new post in Washington, D.C.. Umar continued her art training in Washington, D.C, where she studied art education at George Washington University, and in 1950 she received a master's degree in fine arts from the Corcoran School of Art. In 1966, Umar returned to Iraq and became one of the leading Iraqi artists until she left Iraq in the 1980s.

One of the leading artistic schools in the Arab world is the "Calligraphic School of Art," in which artists combine Arabic words and letters as graphic elements within their paintings. This calligraphic school, in which the letters sometimes take abstract forms and do not conform to the rules of traditional Arabic calligraphy, is also called Huruufiya in Arabic. Umar is considered the pioneer of this modern use of Arabic calligraphy in abstract form. As

Wijdan Ali states: By holding the first ever exhibition in Washington, D.C. in 1949, comprising strictly calligraphic works, accompanied by a written statement, Madiha Umar can be fairly assumed to be the first artist in the modern Islamic world to formally inaugurate the Calligraphic School of Art. Furthermore, she became the first artist to display calligraphy in the Arab world during her exhibition in Baghdad in 1952. (158)

Umar's exhibition at the Georgetown Public Library in Washington, D.C. in 1949 was the first exhibition of modern Islamic calligraphic works of art.

  As Ali explains: "it took place in a Western capital" (152). In her statement for the exhibit, which was acknowledged as a declaration for the use of Arabic letters in abstract paintings, Umar explained the significance of the graphic quality of individual Arabic letters in their shape and meanings.

Umar carried out research on the relationship between Arabic calligraphy and western art and was encouraged by Islamic art historian Richard Ettinghausen to continue exploring the use of Arabic letters in modern art. She held a number of solo exhibitions in the United States, including those at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington (1949); Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (1950); and the Garden Gallery, Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C. (1958). She also held solo exhibits in Lebanon Turkey, and Iraq. Umar also participated in a number of group exhibits throughout the United States and the Middle East, including those at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Baghdad, Iraq (1968, 1971, 1981).

 Umar was enchanted by the Arabic calligraphy of Baghdad's monument. As Burnham explains, that enchantment led to a sustained interest in the form and expressive potential of individual Arabic letters that have been the cornerstone of her painting for more than 40 years. The style of Umar's art is an abstract form in which Arabic characters serve as the main components, taking naturalistic shapes.

The individual letters in Umar's paintings swirl and curl, forming a free form not connected to words, compared to traditional calligraphy where the words and contents are the main concept. In her paintings, Umar used mainly four individual letters painted in free and abstract form. As Salwa Mikdadi writes, Umar's work was "... an attempt to free the Arabic letter from its bondage, imprisoned within geometric designs, where it serves simply to fill the space". Using only four Arabic letters-ayn, meem, yan,and lam-Umar allowed the letters to emerge in new forms, underscoring their elasticity through abstraction and creating a modern language that renders the inherent qualities of the Arabic script .

source :Encyclopedia of Arab American Artists by  Fayeq Oweis

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