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Volume 44, Number 5September/October 1993

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From Kilims to Calligraphy

Written and photographed by Judy Erkanat

"I started weaving when I was four or five," recalls Turkish-American artist Jeyhan Mehmet Rohani, his eyes sparkling. "Instead of paper to draw on, we got scraps of wool and little frame looms on which to work."

Rohani weaves Islamic calligraphy - an art usually reserved for paper and ink - into his woolen tapestries. His work ranges from namazlik, or prayer rugs, to mirrored texts from the Qur'an, written in Kufic script and washed in watercolor tints, to colorful zoomorphic creations with bismillahs, or invocations of God's name, fashioned into peacocks and falcons.

"I believe Rohani is the only full-time Islamic weaver in this country," observes American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya (See Aramco World, January-February 1992). "He's really in tune with what's going on in tapestry today. I respect what he's doing."

Rohani and Zakariya have collaborated on tapestries like "Verse With Tulip," where the calligraphy is set in a border of - crimson and yellow tulips on a green background, evoking grass swaying in a breeze. In 1991, Rohani's "Ayat Al Kursi" was one of some 400 artworks selected from over 7000 pieces to appear in Fiberarts Design Book Number Four - a rare distinction for a Muslim artist in America.

Rohani's work has been exhibited throughout the western United States. Last year, he received the Human Excellence Award for Arts and Culture from San Francisco's Muslim Community Center. His creations have been purchased for homes and businesses in North America and elsewhere. One tapestry, with an Ottoman astronomy theme, was commissioned by the Vancouver Planetarium.

Rohani, born in Los Angeles in 1949, was taken back to his family's Turkish homeland at age three; he grew up in eastern Anatolia, where his relatives were accomplished weavers of kilim carpets and other textiles. He was inspired by his grandfather's collection of fine Turkish and Arabic calligraphy.

Among Rohani's most vivid memories are the rows of women working at looms in the workshops of his aunt's cooperative. Rohani began his formal weaving education there when only 10 years old.

"This early influence led me to create in wool what would normally be done on paper," he explains. "My love for weaving and calligraphy started with the tapestries, other woven work and calligraphic designs that I saw as a child in Turkey - beautiful things that we just don't have in the West."

In 1963, Rohani returned to America. He continued to weave tapestries for the cooperative back in Turkey, and experimented widely in textiles, even working with Navaho designs. In 1981, he began studies under French-Argentine master weaver Jean Pierre Larochette.

Islamic calligraphy has always held a special place in Rohani's heart. His work blends traditional script with unusual motifs and stylizations, including marbleizing techniques that imitate swirled marks of pigments floated on water.

At his California studio, Rohani works his loom from eight to 14 hours a day, taking up to nine months to complete a large piece. He weaves each tapestry in sections, building patterns in selected areas with bobbins of brilliant colors or basic black.

"I validate my Turkish heritage, and myself, in my tapestries," he declares. "I also practice my du 'a' [personal prayers] through my art. I want to reach not only my fellow Muslims, but non-Muslims as well. I hope my work leaves them with an emotional understanding of the spirit of Islam."

Judy Erkanat, a free-lance writer in San Jose, California, recently became president of a statewide Turkish-American association.

This article appeared on pages 12-13 of the September/October 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1993 images.