Floating on Water: The Medieval Art of Ebru

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February 5, 2016 by katmcdaniel

Traditional art forms remain astounding and disarmingly beautiful in an era dominated by technology. What makes this art so beguiling?

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Ebru, a form of paper marbling, is an ancient art that originated in the 15th century in central Asia. Europeans first encountered it in Istanbul and were mesmerized by it. If you have seen old books with marbled beginning and end papers like the one above, you have seen ebru.  Ebru, or abri, can be translated as cloudy or colorful (paper), depending on whether or not you translate the word from Persian or Turkish sources. In Iran it is called abr-o-bâd, or cloud and wind. The video below, an advertisement made for a class at American Islamic College in Chicago by artist Garip Ay, makes it easy to see why people have been so enraptured by this art.

Ay was born in 1984 in Siirt, Turkey and studied painting at the High School of Fine Arts in Diyarbakir. He then pursued and graduated with a degree in Traditional Turkish Arts from Mimar Sinan University in Istanbul. This video shows him working in a more traditional style, but he has made a name for himself by melding the techniques and materials of modern painting and ebru. You can see more of his lovely work on his blog. Evolution keeps the form alive.

Long before Europeans made ebru a status symbol for the wealthy and educated of Europe, this decorative paper began as the background to important official state documents throughout central Asia. This developed not, at first, in celebration of its beauty, but as an anti-counterfeit measure. When artists discovered its potential, ebru became an incredible outlet for creativity. As it grew in imagination and color, it was used as a background for poetry and scripture, written in the graceful legato of calligraphy. Some designs were complicated enough to stand on their own in the style of paintings. Ay and artists like him are continuing to blur the line between painting and ebru.

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“This calligraphic fragment includes two bayts (verses) of poetry that describe the desire of unidentified antagonists to break or humble the beloved: “They want to break the wild-eyed / They want to break the black-eyelashed / They want to break the heart from the spirit / They want to break the objects of beauty.” In these verses with repetitive phrasing, the beloved ones or objects of beauty—the kajkulahan (literally, the “ones wearing crooked helmets,”)—are the target of violence and animosity. Written in black Nasta’liq script on orange paper decorated with light-gold sprinkles, the text is provided with a gold frame and is pasted onto a blue-and-white abri or ebru (marbled) paper strengthened with cardboard. The fragment is neither signed nor dated, but the script and the marble paper suggest that it may have been produced in Iran or India during the 16th–17th centuries.”

The current Turkish tradition of ebru was developed by a branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. These Sufis, Sunni Muslims exploring the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam, saw their art as a form of meditation and passed it on to their followers. The process of floating paint on treated water to make beautiful papers and artwork requires discipline, skill and intense concentration. Keeping mind and body focused on producing beauty allows for spiritual growth.

Gum tragacanth, a paste obtained from the sap of several Middle Eastern legumes, is mixed into a shallow pan of water, making the water thick and sticky. Natural pigments are mixed with ox bile to create paint, which is splattered onto the surface of the water with horsehair brushes. The ox bile, or gall, not only keeps the dye floating, but makes the colors spread and keeps them from blending together. Paint can also be applied in a more controlled fashion with sticks made from rosewood. The floating colors can be manipulated with these rosewood sticks, with combs or with the breath. After a pattern is finished, a piece of acid free, unlacquered paper is laid lightly on top of the design. The design is thus transferred to the paper, making a one of a kind print, or monotype. Ebru requires a gentle touch, as well as a mind open to the movement of paint and water, which produce unexpected patterns. The artist must know when to shape the design and when to accept the direction it has chosen for itself.

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The value of ebru lies not only in the beauty of the product, but in the process itself. There is not yet a computer that would have the dexterity or imagination required. Even more valuable is the effect of such a process on the mind, engendering patience, gentleness and a respect for beauty, color and imagination. These are things that our world needs desperately.

 

 

Images and videos: 1) Public Domain Image via Wikimedia.  2) Video via AICUSA. 3) Public Domain Image via Wikimedia. 4) Image © Ji-Elle with CCLicense

 

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