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 . “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.
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.