The triumph of form over content

150x100cm, acrylic-on-canvas, 2013. Courtesy of Agial Gallery

BEIRUT: For centuries, Arabic calligraphy was diligently studied, faithfully reproduced and carefully refined by generations of master calligraphers, revered as the pre-eminent form of art in Islamic societies where figuration was rejected in favor of the beauty of the written word.

Over the past two centuries, however, perceptions of calligraphy have changed. Often dismissed as “traditional” by those who champion contemporary media, it is increasingly perceived not as art but as artisanal decoration, an attractive means of conveying meaning.

Lebanon’s foremost calligrapher Samir Sayegh has been battling this shift in attitude for decades. Born in 1945, Sayegh fell in love with calligraphy at the age of 12. Since the 1950s, he has been seeking ways to ensure that calligraphy is not relegated to the past, but continues to evolve in line with contemporary practices.

In tandem, he strives to emphasize calligraphy as a visual art, rather than a script designed to communicate a message. If you look at calligraphy seeking to decipher the meaning of the words, the artist believes, you don’t really see it. When the forms of the letters themselves are allowed to take precedence, meaning becomes secondary.

It is this principle that drives the works on show in Sayegh’s latest solo exhibition, “Alif in Many Letters,” currently on show at Hamra’s Agial Art Gallery. The exhibition is timed to coincide with the release of a book of the same name, a poetic exploration of the Arabic alphabet, letter by letter, accompanied by examples of the artist’s work.

The show is comprised of a number of large-scale works on paper, completed over the course of the last two years. Alongside these are 24 diminutive pieces, which date as far back as 2006 and are hung together on a single wall.

The work naturally divides itself into two categories. Almost half the large works on show are glossy, regimented and geometrically precise, square, blocky forms in shiny black acrylic, accented with brilliant gold leaf. The other half are light as air. Beautifully textured, overlapping sweeps of paint, many of them are created with a single perfectly executed stroke.

Most of the pieces on show capture a single letter, poised in the center of a white expanse of paper. Sayegh’s work has an undeniably contemporary edge, but it is balanced with respect for tradition and the shapes of the Kufic script, the angles, curves and ratios of which were developed in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Sayegh’s ultimate aim, says gallerist Saleh Barakat, is to divorce Arabic calligraphy from the connotations that have helped influence its decline. Associated with Islam and with political power, the historical context of the art form shapes the way it is perceived today.

It is for this reason perhaps, as well as his wish to emphasize aesthetics, that Sayegh has chosen here to work with isolated letters, rather than words. Divorced from one another, each letter becomes a free-floating symbol whose meaning has been subordinated in favor of form.

In the free-flowing works, executed in black, deep oranges, blues and purples, Sayegh succeeds in ensuring that “reading” takes second place to “seeing.” His perfect control of his medium allows him to draw paint across the paper with a speed that leaves white trails in the wake of the brush, creating a beautiful streaky texture reminiscent of wood grain.

The flow of the letters, created using felt wrapped around a length of wood, appears deceptively free-form, evoking the brushstrokes of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy. In fact, each letter is perfectly balanced according to the rigid rules governing Arabic calligraphic scripts, adhering to ancient angles and ratios.

When it comes to the blocky black forms, a different tension is at work. The simplicity of the square-edged shapes renders them semiabstract, angular and modern, but the gleam of the gold leaf evokes the historic role of calligraphy as a decorative art form, calling to mind the elaborate detail and rich materials used in Islamic illumination.

Those for whom Arabic is not a first language probably associate calligraphy with the flowing, swooping grace of letters strung together to create words. In Sayegh’s pieces, it becomes something entirely different. The strokes are sometimes layered to the point where the original letter is lost, creating a flowing, repetitive series of shapes that hover somewhere between meaning and abstraction.

Samir Sayegh’s “Alef in Many Letters” is at Agial Art Gallery in Hamra until June 28. For more information, please call 01-345-213.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2014, on page 16.




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