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Dispelling The Myth of Universalism: A Conversation with Artist Rajaa Gharbi

Dispelling The Myth of Universalism: A Conversation with Artist Rajaa Gharbi

Are some artworks universal while others are niche? Interdisciplinary artist Rajaa Gharbi explores our connections through language and our specificity in culture and geography.
Rajaa Gharbi in her studio with works in progress. Photo by Amanda Ovena

This article is available in Spanish, French, Arabic, Swahili, and Chinese. All translations were made using a computer so there may be some small errors.

Unfolding like a cosmic nesting doll, Rajaa Gharbi’s creative life is filled with a constellation of surprising layers. She’s a painter and a poet who merges lettering and imagery. She’s a filmmaker, puppeteer, and sociolinguist who explores how the languages we speak impact how we live, think, and imagine. She was born in Tunisia in the 1950s, during a time of political change, economic hardship, and the expansion of women’s rights. Now, in Seattle for the past 30+ years, Gharbi doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Over the course of three interviews, Rajaa Gharbi shared her life and creative journey with Artists Up Close.

“The evolution of languages, that informs my curiosity,” Gharbi said. “That is my vehicle, if you will. It is the car I drive to explore. That's really my road trip: How I get to understand or find out, even the minute detail, about how we started talking.”

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Gharbi speaks Arabic, French, English, and some Spanish but her paintings incorporate scripts from all over the world including Tifinagh, which she said is, according research so far, the oldest alphabet in Africa. Tifinagh inscriptions can be found on difficult to access mountains in Africa and has been dated to be at least 10,000 years old. And it’s this ancientness that Gharbi uses to revisit the “origins of things” in her artwork. She transforms the letters in such a way that in her final artwork it can be difficult for the viewer to recognize them as letters without some effort on their part. And it’s through this effort that Gharbi hopes the viewer will understand that we are all connected through written language. She offered an example of how the letter ‘A’ in the English alphabet may actually have its origins in Tifinagh, and looks like a ram's head in the Nabatean alphabet. 

Tifinagh alphabet.
Ram’s head (first symbol) in Nabataean script.

“You take the letter ‘A’ reverse it, put it upside down,” Rajaa Gharbi said. “So uppercase A, you turn it upside down and the two bars on the sides you round them up a little bit. Write them cursively a little bit. … You will see that it is actually the horns of the ram. Now, let's go back to ancient Egypt. And let's go back to the Tifinagh alphabet, which is again, the African alphabet that I was talking about that is very old, older than the hieroglyphs of Egypt. You'll see that it's actually the symbol of the ram. Now you go back to the history, the spiritual history of Egypt. … You will see that Baal, the god Baal, that there is a specific meaning attached to the ram. Okay? That's one letter. So, if we look at a lot of the alphabets in the world, lots of them have borrowed or evolved letters from a much older alphabet during certain migrations.”

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