Mohamed Zakariya—calligrapher, turner, metalworker—combines classical standards with a modern sensibility to produce works on paper, fantasies in wood, and instruments from the history of science. With no formal education, Zakariya learned his trades in aerospace-industry machine shops; in the Los Angeles atelier of Oscar Meyer, the French impresario of antiques and objects de virtu; at the British Museum; and at Istanbul’s Research Center for Islamic Art, History, and Culture, where he earned two licenses in Islamic calligraphy—the first Westerner to do so.
Zakariya grew up in Southern California in the 1940s and 50s. “There was no better time to be a boy,” he says. “We could go anywhere and see anything. The area was full of the world’s cast-offs–cranks, eccentrics, old men tinkering in their garages. Great things were to be found in dusty antique shops. We played on the beach and went to school barefoot. Our teachers were glorious fools, and school was not for study but for discovery.”
In 1961, after a holiday in Morocco, Zakariya accepted Islam and began to learn the Arabic language and the study of Islamic calligraphy. He was 19. These interests took him many times to Morocco, Spain, and England, where he remained for a few years studying calligraphy and manuscripts at the British Museum. During this time, he made a living restoring old houses and acting in the British comic troupe “Bruce Lacey and the Alberts.”
Since settling in the Washington, D.C., area in 1972, Zakariya has traveled frequently to Turkey and the Persian Gulf and has exhibited and lectured extensively in this country and abroad. Known for his design of the “Eid Greetings” U.S. postage stamp, he concentrates primarily on classical Arabic and Ottoman Turkish calligraphy. Recent experience includes a stint as artist-in-residence at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in Honolulu; solo exhibitions at the Institute for Works on Paper, San Francisco; and the Bellevue (Washington) Arts Center; and group exhibitions in Dubai and Kuwait.
Taking it as his mission to revive classical texts through aesthetically arresting presentation, Zakariya is considered the preeminent ambassador of the art of Islamic calligraphy in America.
This video was produced by Sana Naim in which Mohamed Zakariya talks about the art of calligraphy.