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Historically, geometric devices have been used for divination since ancient times. Most famous of these is the Royal Game of Ur (or ‘Game of Twenty Squares’), the earliest archaeological example of which predates 2600BC, and was found near to Malallah’s birthplace. Gematria, an Assyro-Babylonian numerological system (which was later adopted by Jewish culture) assigned numerical values to letters in order to connect words on the basis of their arithmetic properties. Prototypic systems like these predate the discovery of zero. In the Islamic era, scientific tools, such as the magic square (wifq in Arabic) made use of the Abjad system to lend mathematical significance to names, and were widely believed to have talismanic properties. 

Numbers have always been prevalent in Malallah’s work, initially based on her knowledge of Ancient Mesopotamian scripts, and also hidden as mathematical ideas within the compositions of her artworks. Since leaving Iraq in 2006, she has developed a numerical signature based on the Abjad system, in which each number corresponds to an Arabic letter. Traditionally, the Abjad system allows letters and words to be analysed as if they were numbers, and has a deep spiritual significance in the Arab world. 

The artist had her numerical signature, or personal code, tattooed on her left forearm in 2013, and she now considers her arm to be a ‘found object’ artwork. The same signature is used on all her artworks and, occasionally, other words and phrases that are similarly encoded can be seen in her work. 


Louisa Macmillan

October 2014

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