BEITEDDINE, Lebanon: “There are very, very few artist-calligraphers,” says Joumana Medlej. She muses that, for the most part, the ancient craft has become an artisanal practice, though the art is undergoing a sort of rebirth nowadays. A glimpse of this rebirth is on show at Beiteddine’s Old Silk Factory, where Beirut’s Art Lounge has set up a summer outpost. “Maktoob” (“Written”), as the exhibition is called, brings Medlej together with calligraphers Ziad Talhouk and Everitte Barbee, whose work explores the age-old art in new ways.
In an effort to shake off the restrictions of traditional calligraphy, Talhouk takes a single Arabic word and repeats it over and over, exploring the graphic possibilities of the letters comprising it.
“Hiya” (“She”) for instance, is a mandala formed by the repetition of the word’s two Arabic letters. In red and sienna ink, Talhouk chases the word in a circle. At times manipulates it so that it looks like a chili pepper, at others he leaves the “ya” slim, rendering the word tadpole-like. A solid sphere, a regular feature at the center of Talhouk’s pieces, seems to hold the words in orbit.
Talhouk flexes, bends and inverts his words to create ornate geometric patterns evocative of those seen on Persian rugs and other forms of design that use Arabic script.
Medlej, who trained with master calligrapher Samir Sayegh, also uses single words to create geometric patterns. Where Talhouk’s style forms delicate, almost squirming, lines on the page, Medlej’s makes large, solid complete shapes, which generate a comforting sense of wholeness and serenity, regardless of what word is under exploration.
Rendered in bold reds, blues and blacks, augmented by silver and gold leaf, the works possess a layer of complexity. You could imagine some of the works to be blueprints for three-dimensional garden mazes or pinball games.
Medlej’s Arabic lettering is undeniably contemporary, and the artist – who also works in graphic design – explains her practice is equally modern. She begins with a notepad and pencil but as soon as she has a design, she likes to introduce technology to the mix.
“I reconstruct [the design] on the computer to check if it works and then I check the dimensions to see – I always work on 50x50 cm paper – ... if the dimensions look good on the paper. If it’s fine, I start from scratch on the paper and I already know how it’s going to go ... Because once you start there is no undoing [what you draw].
“It’s really good to have the computer [to do this] because there’s no need to spend a week drawing 10 different options just so you can figure out [which works].”
While technology plays a welcome role in Medlej’s work, she is adamant that true calligraphers need to learn how to draw the letters by hand.
“If you don’t learn to draw the letters by hand you will always be helpless,” she says. “You will always have to copy someone else’s design ... If you don’t go through this stage, you keep a superficial relationship [with the letters]. You can tell the difference. You can see it in their work that, ‘OK, they don’t actually know how to draw.’”
As the most experienced artist among the trio, Medlej was the driving force behind the Art Lounge exhibition.
She already knew Talhouk and wanted to see his work shown publicly. She met Barbee by chance. Both were sitting at neighboring tables in a Beirut cafe, with their artwork out.
“It was very odd,” Medlej explains. “I’ve never seen a calligrapher in my life in the city and now we’re sitting there,” side by side.
When she and Talhouk wanted a third person to join their exhibition, Medlej immediately thought of Barbee. “I remembered Everitte because I liked his work a lot,” she says. “It’s not traditional. It’s something personal. He really does something new with it.”
An American who learned his craft in 2009 while living in Damascus, Barbee uses the Diwani Jali script to create illustrations – he literally paints pictures with a thousand words.
In “Darwish’s nude,” one of his most intricate renderings, the Mahmoud Darwish poem “In her absence I created her image” is manipulated to form a reclining nude whose face is hidden by her cascading dark hair.
Barbee’s work also bridges east and west, provocatively wedding the culture and discourse of the two.
In “Loss of Lady Liberty,” a James Madison quote is translated into Arabic then rewritten in a deliciously elegant depiction of the Statue of Liberty. The curves and lines of the Arabic lettering form the iconic monument, its flourishes looping to delineate her crown before spiraling upward to her torch.
The work is undoubtedly political. The 19th-century U.S. president’s words carry stark resonance today, when the United States’ war on terror has impeded its own citizens’ freedom.
“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy,” the quote reads. “The loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad.”
In Barbee’s “About Syria,” a blank expanse in the shape of Lebanon’s neighbor comprises the center of the image, while surrounding it Arabic words inked in reds and greens twist and slide, none successfully penetrating the issue.
In more traditional-looking pieces, Barbee has transcribed Quranic verses. These are part of “The Quran for Solidarity,” a larger project the artist is currently pursuing.
“Having recently read the Quran,” he explains, “I have decided to write the entire book, surah by surah in images.”
To his knowledge, the complete work will be the first Quran handwritten by a non-Muslim and possibly the first to be composed entirely of figural Arabic calligraphy, rather than traditional linear calligraphy.
The undertaking is intended as “a display of solidarity against Islamophobia,” he says, “as well as the religious and racial intolerance towards Islam and Arabs which has plagued the U.S. since 9/11.”
“Maktoob” puts the writing is on the wall in Beiteddine, and it does so with rare diversity.
“Maktoob” is open at Art Lounge, Maasser Beiteddine, Old Silk Factory Wednesday through Saturday, 12-8 p.m. until Aug. 31.