Italian artist Antonella Leoni speaks with great passion as she describes her works on papyrus hanging on the walls of her Cairo apartment.
She points to one of her favourites: the Buraq, a heavenly creature in Islamic tradition that transported Prophet Mohammed during his Al Isra Wa Al Miraj journey from Makkah to Jerusalem.
The Quranic verse referring to the event is inscribed on seven lines, concluding with: “He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing”.
The artwork is signed with her name in Arabic and 1441, the Islamic calendar year that corresponds to 2019.
Although Leoni is neither a Muslim nor a native Arabic speaker, she says the aesthetic beauty of Islamic art and calligraphy led her to delve deeper into the subject, learn the language and transform that knowledge into her own creations.
“One can feel a sort of secret in the perfection of the calligraphy, in that kind of art — a secret that is a feeling that you want to learn more,” Leoni, 63, tells The National. “It’s a beautiful journey.”
She incorporates Quran, Hadith and poetry in her artworks, 10 of which featured at the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial in October. She also gave a talk at the American University in Dubai around the same time, entitled Earthly Embodiments of Spiritual Realities.
Now, she’s working on a book that will tell the stories behind 30 of her art pieces.
Over the last couple of years, Leoni has participated in exhibitions in Belgium, France, Italy and Kuwait, in addition to shows in Cairo.
This year, she has been invited to display her work in Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Italy.
Leoni, who has lived in Cairo with her Italian husband since 2015, is from a small town in northern Italy called Roccabianca.
“I’ve always been very fond of art, but actually my life brought me to another field,” she says.
Her father needed an accountant in the family business, so she studied accounting and spent 15 years working in the profession. After she married, her husband’s banking career led them to Singapore, London and eventually Cairo.
She visited art galleries and museums, falling in love with Asian and Islamic art.
She pursued her passion in London, earning a postgraduate diploma in Asian art and the arts of the Islamic world from Royal Holloway, part of University of London, and the British Museum in 2003.
“During my stay in London, I got very passionate about the Arabic language and all the art of the Islamic world — calligraphy, ornamentation, the architecture, the ceramics,” she says. “I didn’t know one day I was coming to Cairo.”
In parallel, Leoni honed her craft, studying the art of China painting under the late American porcelain artist Stephen Hayes and learning various artistic techniques.
When she moved to Egypt, she expanded her education further, attending workshops and the annual Cairo International Biennale for Arabic Calligraphy at the city’s Opera House.
She learnt colloquial Arabic through an intense year-long programme and studied at the public Academia El Khat El Araby (Arabic Calligraphy Academy) in Bab El Louq in downtown Cairo. After four years, she obtained a diploma in the art of Arabic calligraphy and ornaments from the oldest Egyptian school dedicated to this discipline, the Khalil Agha.
“I think I am the only non-Muslim who has done this,” she says. “They were both surprised and very welcoming. Of course, also curious, as to what I was doing there.”
Unique creative process
With her newly acquired knowledge base, Leoni developed a unique creative process for her artwork, inspired by both the Islamic and Pharaonic cultures.
She starts with a large sheet of papyrus measuring two to four metres and then uses a technique called marbling to produce a background pattern. Colours are floated on water and carefully transferred to the papyrus.
The figures that emerge from the papyrus often form the basis for her ideas, rather than the other way around.
Some of her paintings include only a few Arabic letters, such as “Alef Lam Meem”, the three letters that start the Surah Al Bakara (The Cow) in the Quran and whose meaning remain a mystery.
“I assimilate myself like a child who’s learning – from a sound to the first letter, from a letter to words. So these isolated letters symbolise for me a learning process, not only in calligraphy, but also in understanding the deepest meaning of calligraphy,” she says.
Other art pieces include the 99 names of Allah or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, such as: “If you do not see Him, He sees you”.
The writings of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi are also part of her repertoire. One poem reads: “If you want the moon, do not hide at night. If you want a rose, do not run from the thorns. If you want love, do not hide from yourself.”
Leoni held her first solo exhibition at Odyssey Gallery in Cairo in November 2021. “Each painting is very mystical. There’s like a flavour of spirituality,” she says. “It’s a depiction of something that opens your mind to much more … I want to learn Sufism, I want to learn the Quran, I want to learn Islamic philosophy, I want to learn astronomy. There’s so much. You can spend all of your life learning.”
Most people have been supportive of her efforts and have not questioned why a foreigner became intrigued with a language and religion that is not her own.
“I was not a Muslim because I was born in another country … but it’s not important, because we’re talking about oneness,” she says. “There are no borders. If you’re really in love with God, there’s no division.”