The 2014 winner of the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Award, Abjad is a series of wooden sculptures based on shapes created from research into how the Arabic and Roman alphabets developed through time. Each letter tells the story of a single sound, one phoneme’s visual representation starting as a pictogram, evolving into Phoenician, and splitting into modern Arabic and Roman letters through Etruscan, Aramaic, and Nabatean. The letters of Abjad are artistic timelines that reveal the common root between two superficially disparate languages. The scale and physical engagement with these forms as sculptures demand the viewer to see the familiar as foreign and the foreign as familiar. I want every viewer to undergo a process of discovery through this work, and to be challenged to rethink their own linguistic divisions and assumptions.
As a scientist and an artist, I am constantly learning, and all my art comes out of exploration: of a tool, of a question, of a history, or in this case, of my own linguistics. I was raised on the stark shapes of the Roman alphabet, growing up in the United States, and written Arabic always seemed tantalizingly incomprehensible. When I moved to the UAE to study, the language started to untangle itself. I learned to read right to left and no longer saw Arabic as an exotic puzzle: it was simply another way of communicating. Abjad is a response to myself before living here, to those who see either language as hopelessly foreign, and to those who live in bilingual worlds and want to find out what’s at the bottom of it.
"This year’s winner is undoubtedly and unreservedly an artwork that merits the highest consideration and responds perfectly to the award’s criteria. Conceived as a bridge between alphabets, worlds, and the realms of the visible and invisible, Abjad is an artwork that compels a novel narrative to unfold before a quizzical spectator. Conceived for the cosmopolitan village that today’s world community, and certainly the UAE forms an integral part thereof, could readily react to and understand, it evokes a sculpture that is both a universal language and vision."