Ruben Malayan

Calligrapher Ruben Malayan Revives Ancient Artform

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“The striped letter is not entirely a letter, it is rather something that lies between writing and music.”

― Abdelkebir Khatibi, The Wounded Arabic Name

“Calligraphy is a kind of music not for the ears, but for the eyes.” ― V. Lazursky

Over the centuries, calligraphy has variously been described as music for the eyes or visual poetry. Great calligraphers such as Su Tung-p’o (11th century), John Van de Velde the Elder (17th century), or more recently 20th century practitioners such as Rosanjin in Japan or Peter Bailey in the United States have all produced work as striking as that of our finest artists, though their names are less well-known than Michelangelo, Picasso or Rothko. Born in 1971, Ruben Malayan continues in this fine calligraphic tradition, creating works at once powerful for their artistic value as well as noteworthy for the renaissance that he is helping to engender in Armenian writing and printing.

Malayan graduated from the Art Institute in Yerevan and then travelled to Israel where he worked in advertising, as well as the Netherlands and Montreal before returning to Armenia in 2011. As an artist Malayan understands that when all is said and done,  culture is the only thing that sustains individuals as well as nations.  And he considers Armenia to be in a state of cultural as well as political crisis. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, he and others have bemoaned the relative fall in educational standards and the poor knowledge that many students within Armenia possess of their own history — hence in part the decision some have made to emigrate.

One of Malayan’s works, concerning the April 24, 2021 anniversary of the Armenian Genocide

Linguistic differences between Western and Eastern Armenian apart, until recently anyone who tried to read a book printed in Armenia would often come up against letters and paragraphs difficult to make out. Says Malayan: “Armenian typography was so terrible because the only standardized efforts had been made in Mkhitarist Venice (centuries ago). Every community since has done as it has seen fit. There was no universal typography for the Armenian alphabet. The Soviet legacy in typography was a mixed bag that went out the window with independence. Afrikyan was an exception, but the educational system failed typographers by not picking up these new letterings and disseminating them.”  Some may choose to disagree, but the old adage that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover only goes so far — the attractiveness of both graphic design and lettering obviously makes a difference when reading, which is after all a sensual as well as an intellectual experience. And the more knowledgeable about history and culture a calligrapher is, the more this becomes reflected in his work as well: “Every work I create is a chance to revive ancient forms and give them a modern appeal…” notes Malayan. “Ironically, the work which is created on paper and which is unique, ends up shown on a computer screen. A digital copy never has the same appeal as the original work on paper.”

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Not long ago when a world encyclopedia of calligraphy was being put together in the United States, editors turned to Malayan, and the results were gratifying. As for calligraphy itself, Malayan sees it as something one has to feel and enjoy in a very real, physical sense: “It has to be analog. It requires discipline and focus.” He believes that it’s especially important for small countries like Armenia with unique alphabets, where it becomes an important part of a nation’s cultural heritage. Malayan spends much of his time now teaching a new generation of students at American University of Armenia (AUA), where he tries to instill in them that writing is more than a means to an end: “It’s trying to tell you something visually. It’s not just pretty. Calligraphy is also writing…if you have nothing to say, then writing makes no sense.”

Among the courses that he teaches at AUA, a fascinating “Mythology and Visual Arts” stands out in part because it mirrors studies in other disciplines in the humanities such as literature and history. Malayan grew up reading Greek myths and is fascinated by the study of comparative mythology. He shows students paintings influenced by mythology and introduces them to the work of great mythologists such as Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell, who taught many years at Sarah Lawrence College: “Mythology is important in helping students to perceive themselves,” says Malayan: “It teaches them how to deal with the world and how to process their daily struggles. I am most impressed by Campbell’s take on the psychological subtext underlying the myths of the world. His notion that there is essentially “one story,” retold in many different ways has always felt true to me. Robert Graves’s ideas that myths are grounded in history and human experience make a whole lot of sense as well, even if one has to be careful with some of his interpretations.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t many visual stories that Malayan can show students from Armenian artists, apart from a few classics like Sureniants’s “Shamiram” or making them read Toumanian, whose stories often includes a moral element, stated or understated. Malayan is part of a dedicated team who by reviving an ancient art form is creating something vibrant and new. In the process, he is teaching young Armenians not just how to create music for the eyes, but poetry for their souls as well.

As part of a new aspect of this online column, I asked Malayan to comment on three works from among his portfolio in order to give readers a chance to evaluate the artist’s work themselves and then hear an explanation about the art straight from the creator himself:

Komitas Project

Topics: Calligraphy

This was designed as part of the visual identity of the Komitas Museum Institute in Yerevan. It was important for me to create an original work, so I started by drawing Komitas portraits using archival photographs as references. Of course, this was also an opportunity to do some calligraphy, in particular the Armenian music notation or chazer. Komitas was responsible for decoding this forgotten ancient tradition in writing down music and I was interested in the visual appearance of these signs, as they are a fusion of Armenian letters and music notation. I also tried to break the stereotyped perception of Komitas as a tragic figure: many contemporary sources mention that he was a cheerful and happy person, full of love and life. Hence the copy “Unknown Komitas.”

 

The Vishup or Armenian dragon is a fantastic beast, the protector of the water sources in Armenian mythology. This was an opportunity to design a symbol which would express the flow of snake-like movement, where one letter flows into the other. It works partially because the word is composed of only five letters and I used the opportunity to revive a much-forgotten treatment of the letter “V”, which is preserved in Mekhitarist studies. This shape of the letter allows the vertical stroke to loop upwards and connect to the next shape.

 

Mashtots Meditations

In this commissioned work,  the Matenadaran Institute of Manuscripts asked me to write the very first phrase translated into Armenian from the Bible and written with the newly created alphabet (405 AD). I was curious to find out whether I could write it in a circular shape, which proved to be an elegant solution, as the client wanted to use it on different products sold in the museum shop. Its circular shape makes it meditative and invites contemplation. The sentence reads “Ճանաչել զիմաստութիւն եւ զխրատ, իմանալ զբանս հանճարոյ: Čanačʿel zimastutʿiwn ew zxrat, imanal zbans hančaroy. «To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding.» — Book of Proverbs, 1:2.

 

Visit more of Malayan’s works at www.ArmenianCalligraphy.com

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