Saturday, April 22, 2006

A colorful look at Islamic culture
Visiting artist’s inspiration comes from Quran and from interactions with people in Western society
By Hina Rehman

Artist Huda Totonji looks at one of her paintings before Wednesday’s Islamic art exhibition and lecture, which was held in MU 109. Totonji was born and raised in Saudi Arabia but has spent most of her adult life in the U.S.Tzu-Ying Chen / The Daily Barometer
From step-by-step geometric designs to pictures of a metal chandelier formed in the shape of Arabic words, a Wednesday night presentation captivated its small audience.
In hopes of getting more interest in the Islamic culture on campus, the Muslim Student Association invited artist Huda Totonji to speak on campus about Islamic art.
Riwa Kabbani, a senior in English and an active member of the MSA, contacted Totonji in Portland and asked her to present about Islamic art as a way of adding more diversity and informing the community about different cultures.
“Islam’s a culture that’s not very well represented,” Kabbani said. “We need to express our cultural voices through such events.”
The art exhibit “Splendors of Arabic Calligraphy and Ornamentation,” included Totonji’s Arabic calligraphy and pictorial artwork Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Totonji was born and raised in Saudi Arabia but has lived most of her adult life in the U.S. She says her inspiration for her work comes from verses from the Quran, the holy book of Islam, as well as the interaction with the people in Western society.
Most of her artwork is mainly based on the female figure wearing the headscarf and verses from the Quran that are about women.
“I deal with the theme of women,” Totonji said.
She started off her lecture by explaining that there are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, which is written from right to left. She talked about the history of Arabic calligraphy and how it has changed throughout the years. She told the audience about her favorite Muslim artists, one of whom, Mohammad Zakaria, designed the Eid Greetings U.S. postage stamp.
Totonji said that there are two parts of Islamic art — the ornamentation and the calligraphy. She discussed the five different types of Arabic calligraphy and the main tool used for it — the bamboo stick.
Totonji described how the West relies more on images and how Islam relies on words.
“Mostly we (the West) understand image and figure,” she said. “The power of Islam is through the word.”
It usually takes anywhere from one week to one month to finish her artwork depending on the materials she’s using — she also sells her artwork in auctions with a starting price of $500, which can go up to more than $5,000.
“They (the auctioneers) base the price on the dimension, material used, idea and concept, time spent on the piece, experience of the artist, and how famous you are,” Totonji said.
The money is usually donated to a mosque, but last year it was donated to the Muslim Educational Trust, an organization in Portland which educates Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam.
Wearing a specially made Arabic abaya (loose robe) with green calligraphic designs — and a green headscarf to match — Totonji was constantly asked where she got her outfit. Many people commented on how perfectly fitting it was for an art exhibit.
Totonji also offered a little advice for aspiring artists — you’ve got to have money to be one.
“It’s very, very expensive to be an artist,” she siad.
Her artwork can be viewed at

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