Collection Spotlight: The Arabic Alphabet portfolio (1973), Hussein Madi

Artist: Hussein Madi (Lebanese, born 1938)
Title: The Arabic Alphabet portfolio
Date: 1973
Medium: 30 etchings on cotton paper
Dimensions:  Each 30 x 24.4 cm
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, gift of Sami Khalifé, M.D.

As part of his varied practice, artist Hussein Madi has explored Arabic letters, words, and calligraphy. In The Arabic Alphabet (1973), a portfolio of thirty aquatint etchings, each letter appears on its own sheet of paper, within its own medallion. When displayed, the thirty prints hang together to form a grid.

Within the grid, each letter is a unique, elaborate design—nearly abstract and filling its circular frame.  The fluid, sinuous lines swell and taper with whiplash curves or geometric patterns. Set within a modernist grid, the series both aestheticizes and affirms the capacity of language to offer information, inspiration, or a moment of aesthetic reflection.  As a whole, the series comprises a visually inventive, graphically dynamic Arabic alphabet, (along with the word “Allah”)  exemplifying the practice of Hurufiyya. Translating roughly to “letterism,” Hurufiyya describes a focus on letters and writing in art of the Arab world. Associated with periods of decolonization in West Asia and North Africa, Hurufiyya was widely practiced by 20th century artists across the Middle East and became part of an expression of pan-Arab identity. Within Hurufiyya, the use of words and letters may appear as either secular and aesthetic or as religious and spiritual. In a related series of drawings titled Allah from 1976, for example, each abstracted composition contains the word “Allah” repeated insistently over and over across the surface of the artworks.

In another version of Alphabet (2008), also in the Block Collection, Madi combined the same stylized letters of the Arabic alphabet onto one large sheet. Divided into a grid of thirty squares, each circular letterform sits against an ochre-colored background. The later versions suggest Madi’s continued engagement with alphabet forms as subject matter throughout his career.

After graduating from Beirut’s Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA) in 1962, Madi worked in Baghdad as a graphic designer and caricaturist for various newspapers. In 1963 he continued his studies at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. After living for twenty-three years between Italy and Lebanon, in 1986 he returned permanently to Beirut to teach sculpture and engraving at Lebanese University and ALBA.

A version of Alphabet was included in Block’s Fall 2022 exhibition Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s–1980s on loan from the Barjeel Art Foundation. The exhibition was in part a catalyst for the generous donation of the artwork by a private collector. Madi’s work resonates with and supports the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary thinking and contributes to research strengths across its schools, departments, libraries, and programs, especially in Middle Eastern and North African studies (MENA), Art History, History, and Comparative Literary Studies. These artworks add significantly to our growing collection of work by Middle Eastern and North African artists, including two recently acquired collages by Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal, and artists from or practicing in the region, including Jumana Manna, Shabtai Pinchevsky, and Vardi Kahana.

 Contributed by Corinne Granof, Academic Curator



“Hussein Madi,” British Museum collection website. Accessed February 27, 2023,

Hussein Madi, The Art of Madi, London: Saqi Books, 2005.

Venetia Porter, Word into Art: Artists of the Middle East. London: BMP, 2006.

Sotheby’s, 20th century Art, Middle East, March 29, 2022. Accessed March 1, 2023,

Takesh, Suheyla and Lynn Gumpert, eds. Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, 1950s-1980s. Munich: Hirmer, 2020.

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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