Calligraphy, or the art of beautiful writing, might seem like an obsolete concept—and Arabic calligraphy would have died out long time ago had it not been revived by numerous contemporary artists. On display in Lebanon’s Beiteddine Palace is Samir Sayegh’s Yawmiyat Horriya (Days of Freedom), a calligraphy exhibition that bridges this art with the pulsating political and social changes ongoing in many Arab countries.
Published in The Majalla
Calligraphy has always been a part of the development of written language. Calligraphy by Muslim artists who used the Arab alphabet used to be considered one of the highest forms of visual art. Practiced from Morocco to China, history reveals that Arabic calligraphy has not been limited to representations of passages from the Qur’an, but was also used in other types of writing, such as poetry, stories, royal decrees, and proverbs.
Recently, many new, autonomous thematic elements—such as love, peace, and freedom—started appearing in modern calligraphy. Moreover, in the past few decades the traditional style of calligraphy has been infused with a variety of Western schools of abstract art. Freed from many traditional compositional rules, contemporary calligraphy is like a rebellious offspring with a strong connection to its past. It introduces new and independent artistic visions, often with use of multi-media techniques and digital art.
On a conceptual level, for the contemporary artists of the Islamic world calligraphy is an expressive representation of their thoughts; some of the works become commentaries reflecting on the surrounding realities. For example, Samir Sayegh’s latest calligraphy collection, Yawmiyat Horriya (Days of Freedom) uses the term horriya (freedom) as its centerpiece; a concept that has been preoccupying the Arab World over the past 18 months.
Samir Sayegh is an accomplished Lebanese artist who is known for his modernistic experimentations with calligraphy; while doing so he infuses Arabic art with many contemporary concepts and perspectives. The exhibition Yawmiyat Horriya, displayed in rooms surrounding the large Dar El-Kheil court (the stables) at the Beiteddine Palace, is part of the 27th Beiteddine Art Festival, one of the most prestigious music and art festivals in the Middle East.
According to Sayegh, the exhibition is his diary, “a tribute to the rare historical moments that we witnessed last year.” Each day during the past year’s events in the Arab world, Sayegh wrote the word ‘horriya’ in a different calligraphic script. Curated by Saleh Barakat, founder of Beirut’s Agial Art Gallery, the exhibition is “inspired by the dailies of the Arab Spring.”
As the artist emphasizes, his exhibition is also an important tribute to Arabic calligraphy, being “a refined and fine art pursuing its path to liberation to become once again an art capable of seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible, and saying the ineffable.”
Sayegh’s calligraphy is soaked in Arab artistic modernism. Simple in form and content, his works communicate a personal approach and a unique artistic sensitivity. The harmony between control and freedom that dominates Sayegh’s calligraphic logic is nevertheless characterized by freedom of touch. His profound craftsmanship respects general outlines of the art form that he now re-discovers and re-shapes, just like Arab nations rediscover values that have been buried for ages. Some works are innocently simple and straightforward and address the viewer with their seemingly blunt message, stressing the accuracy and fluency of the calligrapher; others reveal a sturdy dynamism and their bubbling energy arouses strong emotions equal to those that the call for freedom carries.
The modernistic meanders of the calligrapher are not chained by strict compositional rules, and sometimes this means that the artist’s spontaneity shows through in bursts of shape and color.
Daring at times and humble at others, Sayegh’s works become genuine transpositions of the major source of inspiration verbalized by millions of Arabs: horriya. As such, Yawmiyat Horriya becomes an important bridge between a concept and a form, between the past and the rejuvenation of Arab values on the human, social, and aesthetic levels. Sayegh’s calligraphy invites one for a moment of reflection about the notion that transcends meaning and form.
As much as many canvases seem to have repetitive ideas and elements, it is through this repetition that Sayegh underlines the persistence of horriya as an active notion for which the Arab World began the Arab Spring. Though we may wonder if those specific works will stand the test of time, their presence alone, at this particular historical moment, is one of many important stepping stones in a series of artistic reflections on the past months in Arab history.
The Yawmiyat Horriya exhibition is part of the Beiteddine Art Festival that kicked off on 28 June and will continue until 28 July. A parallel exhibition is also being held in one of the palace’s rooms, displaying photography works by Goksin Sipahioglu, founder of the Sipa press agency.
This year, the festival opened with the performance Kan Ya Ma Kan (Once Upon a Time) by the Caracalla Dance Theatre. The festival offers a smaller number of events this year when compared to previous festivals, although the quality and reputation of the performers is not compromised. In the upcoming weeks it will host a contemporary dance performance by Sylvie Guillem, the world-renowned ballet dancer; Hamam Khairy, the master of Qudood Halabiya; a jazz concert by the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, featuring a Lebanese singer Randa Ghossoub; and a performance of the opera La Bohème, a coproduction with Les Chorégies d’Oranges, with cast members including world-class opera singers such as Inva Mula.