Shah’s influence on my Guadameci leatherwork

By Jorge Centofanti

Having left Argentina in 1968, I hoped to steer my life away from intellectual activities – such as poetry and journalism – and to work with my hands instead. By chance I was lucky enough to find a talented fellow-Argentinian in Paris from whom I learnt my first leather working techniques.

My move to England in 1973 came at a good time: my daughter was born the same year, and the recently formed Crafts Advisory Committee welcomed me with a grant and the possibility to exhibit in central London. Around the same time I met Idries Shah, ‘the teacher who would give me qualities I did not possess’.

I had started working on decorative leather panels – an incredibly versatile medium – as a way of moving into other artistic realms. Somebody had sent me a lovely piece of Arabic calligraphy in the form of a lion, which I turned into a leather table-top. I became fascinated by the beautiful ‘Boat’ calligraphy illustrating the story of ‘The Islanders’, which appears at the start of The Sufis. I had made two pyro engraved tableaux or wall hangings with the design as a centrepiece, one of which I offered to Shah that year.

Two years later he told me he had a collection of calligraphic work he wanted to show me, saying that he was keen to discuss a project which might interest me. On 28th September 1975 I met Shah in the Durbar room at his home, Langton House. After enquiring about my work situation, he asked if I was interested in creating artworks with these. Of course I jumped at the chance. He showed me the calligraphic work he had selected – beautiful and meaningful ones which I took away to study, along with two books and some other materials.

Shah explained this was ‘the right time’ to release them. He said: ‘There is a need for them and we are interested in these designs circulating. Some of these have an immediate appeal for Middle Eastern people; as they are mostly in museums these people are now looking for “new antiques”.

‘If you are interested in doing these calligraphic designs in leather,’ Shah went on, ‘we could perhaps organise an exhibition. We will make the arrangements, you can’t do this for yourself but we can’.

I felt overwhelmed by the unexpected offer of an exhibition and was speechless. Shah continued by saying, ‘You could also try incorporating certain traditional designs. For example, if you just change the place of things, a floor carpet can become a mural hanging, with astonishing results’. Taking me around the house he pointed out the cashmere hangings, and the fascinating design of the ‘heart with wings’ on a brass tray, used as a table-top. With such a fine representation, its meaning was not immediately obvious to the eye.

Shah asked me to design an eagle with the octagon emblem adorning it. When I returned to show him some sketches, the conversation turned to the subject of learning by experience, as opposed to by conventional study.

‘Better to learn by and through experience,’ he said. ‘It means working hard, very hard, but that is the way. Because what happens is that in the accumulation of practice, one comes to the point where all these elements (information, practice, skill, etc.) adjust themselves in the right order and place, almost like a helmet being placed on your head.’

Shah’s energy was infectious and communicated or transferred to one the desire for knowledge. I walked out of that meeting with my head buzzing with ideas, visual plans for each piece of calligraphy, and thoughts about experimenting with different types of leather. I felt a need to immerse myself in the study of the Guadameci Art. Its origins, as well as most of the decorative techniques involved in it – alum tawing, dyeing, gilding, blind stamping, embossing, modelling, moulding – can be traced to the city of Córdoba during the Umayyad period, beginning in the 8th century.

I would go back to see Shah at certain stages, to show him the evolution of work. Checking the exactitude of the Arabic, the sizes, techniques and colours that I had proposed, he would say, ‘Colour. Oh, I don’t know about colour… You are the artist: I’m sure you know.’

He talked about the difference in appreciation of values between East and West. ‘Why is it that they may admire the same rose and yet have different standards in art or architecture? Or why is it that they (an Occidental and an Oriental) may look at the same picture – for example of a cathedral – and yet see quite different things? A Westerner may admire a picture that an Oriental finds uninteresting, noticing only the dust on it. Why is that?’

One day, when I showed him the ‘Pomegranate’ calligraphy suggesting it could be done as a prayer rug hanging, he showed me how to do it. Kneeling over the large drawing, he demonstrated where the niche should be for the head. I found it very amusing. Shah went on to explain that the design at the top of this calligraphy indicated different exercise postures (hands on knees, hands on arms crossed, etc.), a layer of secrets hidden to the eye of the uninitiated.

During our meetings we would go through each calligraphy in detail – taking note of the meaning, specific mistakes that appeared (round dots instead of diamond shapes, for example). I would tell Shah which technique I planned to use and, at times, he would select colours that would be attractive to Easterners – such as green (no yellow), black and gold. He suggested I take inspiration from a piece of ‘Kiswah’ – the embroidered cloth, from the Kaaba at Mecca – which was presented to him by King Ibn Saud.

Shah was always very encouraging: ‘Fantastic, beautiful, great – this is great! This is the work of a real artist, a master craftsman.’ Such praise was manna from heaven for me as I was launched into uncharted technical territories, experimenting and learning at the same time. Sometimes he would call his wife, Kashfi, to come in and see, saying: ‘Look! Isn’t this what we want? Isn’t it marvellous? Don’t you think this is what we wanted to show?’

Shah would bring out books, talking about specific colours – like the deep Moroccan red, the green felt for the back of pictures, or a particular deep blue. Rising to the challenge, I tracked down individual vegetable dyes, one giving that very special blue that I used for the background complementing it with Arabic script written in gold. After a great many trials, I learned the craft of gilding – using it for the first time for that calligraphy in the image of a mosque.

Interested in every aspect of the project, Shah wanted to talk over every detail. We would discuss the costs of materials, the framing of them, whether to use real gold as opposed to paint, and the prices they should sell for. On that question, Shah said: ‘I know prices are a difficult subject for you because you’re the artist. Artists shouldn’t have to worry about money. Instead, consider these as originals, part of a lost tradition. There’s nobody doing this sort of thing anymore.’ ‘Nobody?’ I asked. ‘No one,’ he replied. ‘Of course there are people who can do the calligraphy, but they are not doing it in leather.’

Almost nothing escaped Shah’s attention. For example, he discussed the lighting and the way the pictures could be hung, recommending indirect light – without doubt the best way to illuminate them. He would pick up the Fish calligraphy or the Mosque in blue, and take it around the house to show me the difference. Or, from time to time he would launch into a lecture on Middle Eastern etiquette. Such lessons explained what I should and shouldn’t do when it came to selling my work. ‘For them, a civilized person is not necessarily related to commerce but judged by his culture,’ he said. ‘This means respect for the artist, because they consider that skill is a gift from God, and as a consequence they will respect you for the work you have done.’

Shah commented on the matter of signing work as well. ‘There is a tradition concerning the signature,’ he said. ‘Artists never used to sign their work. Their aspiration was that their work was their signature, because nobody else could do it. That’s why they strived for the perfection of their art and style. Perfection was their signature, as was their style.’

When the text for the exhibition catalogue was being prepared, I asked Shah how to present the fact that he had given me the selection of calligraphies and the idea of the exhibition in the first place. ‘You don’t want to draw the attention to me,’ he replied. ‘You want to attract attention to yourself. I don’t need this publicity, but you do. If you call their attention away from you and on to me, people may lose interest in your work, and that’s not our intention.’

Sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Research, the exhibition took place at the Federation of British artists at 17 Carlton Terrace, London SW1, from 9 to 22nd June 1977, coinciding with the Queen’s Jubilee.


Jorge Centofanti’s work can be found at: