Should we "shrugra" off the tughra?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

September 13, 2007 Ed Cartoon

The recent unveiling of the public art piece by local artist Jamelie Hassan has garnered controversy.

Hassan’s “Kian,” a Persian word meaning “benevolent monarch or king,” and an Arabic word meaning “soul” or “essence,” and a Celtic name (keon) meaning “ancient one,” is an Arabic calligraphic symbol done in neon lighting that adorns the outside of King’s University College.

However, Dr. Heinz Klatt, professor emeritus at King’s, contends that the symbol is actually a tughra, a seal of the Ottoman sultans that represents the dominance of Islam over Christianity.

Dr. Klatt responded to a description of the work found in a bulletin sent to members of the King’s community, stating members of the college are “drunk with multiculturalism” and they are “dancing to celebrate [their] supreme values of inclusiveness and diversity.”

While the bulletin states the work is a celebration of King’s “commitment to diversity within [its] student body, faculty and staff and in relationship to our broader community”, Dr. Klatt feels the symbol, given its history, undermines the values of a liberal-democratic institution.

However, Hassan maintains the piece reflects the ties between East and West, Islam and Christianity. The multiple meanings of the inscription themselves express the universality of shared language and culture. Modern versions of the tughra exist today, as the symbol was disseminated among cultures. Russian president Vladimir Putin uses a tughra, as did the Emporer Akihito of Japan, that look remarkably similar to the symbol giving Dr. Klatt so much offence. Dr. Klatt himself admits to the aesthetic quality of Arabic script, a fact contributing to their appeal across cultural lines.

Dr. Klatt’s interpretation is mired in a 15th Century understanding of the symbol. In his letter to the King’s community, Dr. Klatt suggests if our multiculturalism can accommodate and even tolerate the tughra, then why not do better and add a “hammer and sickle and the ancient swastika” to the display outside King’s. This argument misses the point that modern interpretations of these symbols’ relationship to oppression remain fresh in the Western mind, whereas the tughra’s relationship to the oppression of Christianity, if there is indeed any merit in that interpretation, are ancient and no longer valid.

Even if Dr. Klatt is right, it only shows the strength of our society if we can put behind us the ancient, negative meanings of symbols and adopt new and constructive ones. This is precisely what Hassan achieves with “Kian.”

If the purpose of art is to engage us in dialogue and debate, Klatz’s action against Kian only proves the work’s relevance.

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