Madiha Umar was a pioneer and the first artist to incorporate Arab calligraphy with modern abstract art. Her work is considered to be the precursor to the Hurufiyya movement.
She was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1908 from Circassian father and Syrian mother but she moved to Iraq being a young girl. She was trained as an art teacher with first-class honors in Art and Crafts in London, at the Maria Grey Training College in 1933. She was the first female to receive a scholarship from the Iraqi government to study in Europe. Upon return, she becomes a painter, teacher and Head of the Department of Painting and Art at the Teachers Training College in Baghdad.
After her marriage with the diplomat Yasin Umar, she moved to Washington in 1942 where she started her research on Arabic calligraphy, inspired in Islamic Scholar Nabia Abbott’s book. In 1959, she received her MFA from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and also studied Art Education at the George Washington University. When she came back to Iraq, she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and joined the One Dimension Group founded by Shakir Hassan Al Said in 1971 –George Washington Notable Alumni 1950’s. She also was a member of the Iraqi Artist Society.
Her first solo exhibition was in 1949 with a series of 22 hurufist-inspired paintings at Georgetown Public Library in Washington, a result of 9 years of investigation encouraged by art historian Richard Ettinghausen. The search for Hurufiyya begun "many years before (the exhibitions), in 1944 or 1945 from I recall", says Umar. "In the college library I stumbled upon a book on Arabic calligraphy in North Africa with a table showing the beginnings of letters and the development of their form and shape. After that I went to the museum director, the famous scholar of Arab-Islamic art Richard Ettinghausen, who held the Chair for Arab-Islamic Art in Michigan before moving to Washington. I showed him some of my experimenting with the development of the letter. 'Continue in this direction. No one has done it before you', is what the famous professor told me."
Later in the same year, she wrote the essay Arabic Calligraphy: An Element of Inspiration in Abstract Art. The following paragraph is a fragment of this essay.
“I mastered Arabic calligraphy, which represents abstract meanings and which is symbolic in its essence and which should not be regarded as mere geometrical dimensions and forms. From the standpoint of artistic design. I think such a view does harm to the individuality of each letter, divests it of its freedom of expression and hinders its ability of being used as an artistic design. In fact, every letter of Arabic calligraphy has sufficient ability and dynamic character to make an abstract image. Moreover, it has that obvious individualistic quality which helps in making perfect forms with a particular meaning or idea, or in representing a new or an old event.”
Between 1950 and 1980, Umar had 18 solo shows in Washington, Maryland, San Francisco, New York, Lebanon, Baghdad, Istanbul, among others. She also participated in numerous group exhibitions in UK, USA and Iraq. Her pieces are in permanent view in public collections as well in traveling exhibitions at the National Museum of Baghdad.
She passed away in Amman, Jordan in 2005.