Whether microscopic or monumental, the twentieth-century Afghan calligrapher Daud al-Hossaini (1894-1979) mastered all forms. With exceptional skill and artistry, he inscribed rice grains with multiple Quranic suras and penned over 550 words in a 2.5 cm square composition. He also designed large scale architectural inscriptions like those that adorn Kabul’s Triumphal Arch (Taq-e Zafar) and other modern monuments. As cultural advisor to the last Afghan King Muhammad Zahir Khan (r. 1933-1973), al-Hossaini belonged to the political and intellectual elite in Afghanistan. He held various political positions and oversaw the national printing industry.
Despite his intense political and intellectual career, he remained devoted to his artistic practice and was prolific. Unfortunately, only a fraction of his work survives today. The current location of some 300 calligraphy works owned by the National Archive in Kabul, for example, is not known. Others, gifted by the King Muhammad Zahir Khan to numerous global leaders are either lost or scattered in various archives waiting discovery and recognition.
The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin recently acquired a portion of al-Hossaini’s work with a generous gift and long term loan from al-Hossaini’s son, Dr. Haschmat al-Hossaini. From 7 February to 3 May, 2020, the museum will present for the first time a selection of al-Hossaini’s artistic work with the exhibition Calligrapher to the King, Daud al-Hossaini. The exhibition aims to shed light on the artistic achievements of al-Hossaini, who was a modern master working in the long tradition of Islamic calligraphy in Central Asia.
Highlights of the exhibition include the two remaining rice grains with al-Hossaini’s microscopic calligraphy as well as accompanying letters of thanks and other archival material that praise his artistic skill. Also presented will be exceptional examples of Siya Mashq (Black or Pen Practice), a common and highly valued calligraphy form in Central Asia that best illustrates a calligrapher’s capacity to dynamically replicate letter forms and combinations. Practice sheets and marbled or Abri papers will show the visual and material artistry that supports the full range of calligraphy practice as an art form.
Also on view will be exceptional calligraphy samples that present both al-Hossaini’s calligraphic virtuosity and the poetic eloquence of important literary figures including Bedil, Saib, Hafiz and Sadi. Collectively, the exhibition demonstrates al-Hossaini’s strong commitment to classical Islamic calligraphy and its connection the rich cultural history of Central Asia and specifically Afghanistan.