BEIRUT: “Arab Visual Art,” the exhibition now up at Gemmayzeh’s 392Rmeil393 Gallery, is comprised of 20-odd word-based, Plexiglas works, whose shapes matter as much as the meaning of the words themselves.
“Each work is a poem,” artist Rola Haidar told The Daily Star. “It has a meaning and a philosophy.”
Haidar’s work is indebted to classical Arabic calligraphy, obviously, but also European linguistics.
In the late 19th century, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure founded the discipline of semiotics (or semiology in de Saussure’s terminology). By dissecting each word into its “signifier” and “signified” – the written word versus the object or concept it represents – the scholar elevated linguistics to a new level of sophistication.
Echoes of Saussure’s ideas reverberate through works of philosophy and linguistics to this day. His thought inspired Lebanese semiotician Adel Fakhoury to recombine signifier and signified in his Theory of Concrete Poetry.
Rather than Islamic calligraphy, the title of Fakhoury’s theory nods a movement that grew out of 20th-century modernism. Concrete poetry traced its heritage to the typographic experiments of Anglophone poets such as Ezra Pound and e e cummings.
The term “concrete poetry” may not sound familiar, but it has other signifiers, as it were. In his collection “Calligrammes,” French writer and poet Guillaume Apollinaire described his work as “shape poetry.” Published in the beginning of the 20th century, the typographic shape of his poems assumed the form of the poem’s subject.
In terms of malleability, the Latin alphabet has its limits, offering a relatively narrow range of shapes and therefore calligraphic possibilities.
As centuries of calligraphic experimentation testify, the Arabic alphabet is much richer in this respect.
Collaborating with their son Jad, Rola said that she and her husband Ali devised the works in “Arab Visual Art” after more than four years of research into Fakhoury’s theories on how phonetics, meaning and form could be combined within the same work.
These works can be referred to as “imagetext,” Rola continued, a notion much used in philosophy and linguistics to describe visual works combining images and words.
In creating these pieces, the Haidars used three Arabic fonts: Kufic (considered quite decorative), Sufi and Diwani (whose attributes are complexity and elaborate structure).
Explaining the importance of Arabic calligraphy in the classical Islamic arts, Jad stressed that his mother’s art should not be considered something that is detached from this tradition but as an effort to bring new perspective to the classical forms.
The innovative element of these works, the Haidars insisted, is their having been digitized and printed on Plexiglas.
“We are focusing on the malleability of the font,” Jad continued, “which allows us to give the meaning of the object we are trying to depict.”
As onlookers meander through the gallery, they will find clocks, peacocks, water pipes, labyrinths and roses.
Each drawing has been formed from words, demonstrating the great flexibility and utility of Arabic calligraphy.
Rola’s works on display here also include mirrors and jewelry.
For the “Labyrinth” (“Mata7a”) piece, it is evident that the maze has been formed by words; there is no form other than the Kufi font.
“We gave the shape with the word,” Rola said.
Each of these works has a different shape and different meaning. “The 21st Century Face” sets out to portray a universal face: The letters form the hair, question marks the ears and an exclamation point the nose. The mouth is said to represent “the suicide of phrases.”
“The Dead Poem” refers to an ancient Arabic tradition, as Rola explained, similar to modern-day obituaries. Her work can be seen as a mise en abime or synecdoche of that tradition.
Lines and dots form a pattern without meaning, suggesting how the dead poem is, well, dead. The linear pattern could be paralleled to the static activity on an electrocardiogram. In the artwork, the death of literary activity reflects the death of the poem.
“We applied [Fakhoury’s] theory and made an art out of it,” Rola said. “We never heard of places that do stuff like this.”
For each work, Ali has written a poem, which will later be published as a book, the artist promised, “with animations.”
“Arab Visual Art” is up at Gemmayzeh’s 392Rmeil393 Gallery until March 10. For more information, please call 03-242-193.