Samir Sayegh: On Liberating Calligraphy
Born in Lebanon, 1945, Samir Sayegh is a pioneer of modernism in the Arab world. An art critic and historian, he wrote about the contemporary art of the Arab world in the Arabic press from 1970 to 1985. His own practice is driven by a deep interest in the formal power of letters and he was one of the first who sought to liberate calligraphy from language and meaning in an effort to create a universal visual language.
As such, he is considered as one of the most avant-garde Arab master calligraphers. Also a prolific writer, Sayegh has published numerous articles and essays on art and aesthetics as well as being the author of several books, two on Sufi poetry and one on Islamic art. From 2003-2007, he was a lecturer in the Architecture and Graphic Design department at the American University of Beirut.
Sayegh lives and works in Beirut and is represented by Agial Art Gallery (Beirut). I interviewed him about his practice.
Q: You talk about the relationship between writing and calligraphy being at times, perfection and at other times, a struggle. For you, in your art work, do you aim to find a balance between the meaning and the content?
(Sayegh) From the beginning, I sought to liberate calligraphy from language, such that it won’t only be a tool to carry the meaning of words and does not become just a craft. I sought to make calligraphy come out of the circle of balance between usefulness and beauty to entirely take the side of beauty and become beauty for beauty itself.
As for writing, I felt that during the civil war in Lebanon and after the series of defeats in the Arab world, that language in poetry had become an ineffective mode of expression, and so I stopped writing poetry. The reconciliation came when I started writing about letters, when letters started writing their memoirs and correspondences, and make dialogues between each other, that is, when language became form for calligraphy and when calligraphy become content.
Still, language remains for me the medium that joins earth and heaven and unites existence and the unseen, and calligraphy remains in its first manifestations a form for the word of revelation.
Q: How do you choose the texts for your calligraphy compositions?
The title of my first exhibit was “what cannot be written and cannot be said” and it was without any texts. In following exhibitions, the text was limited to one word: “Allah” under the title “The multiple One”, or other words such as “baraka” (blessing), “ne’ma” (grace), “suroor” (delight), “hob” (love), “hurryah” (freedom) and “salam” (peace).
Then the text became one letter, and later texts without name or pronunciation, and writing became signs without letters.
Q: Calligraphy is full of strict rules regarding dimensions of the letters and proportions. Is it important for you to stick to these in your work?
Since my first steps in calligraphy, I had to quickly override the issue of rules and rhymes that were established by Ibn Muqla, then asserted by calligraphers in the times of the Ottoman sultanate. My contemplations on the early Kufic scripts led me to the inference that rules and rhymes are not fixed, but moving, multiple and variable. They are based on dialogue and interaction between their elements, but more importantly they do not precede creativity nor planning but rather come with them and after them, as a result. And creativity is not one but multiple.
In poetry, I quickly went past the rhymes and verses of Al Farahidi (an ancient Iraqi poet and lexicographer), to listen to poems in prose form and appreciate the music of language in its flow, with the realisation that they would align with ideas, feelings and beats of the heart.
Q: How then, do you find your own unique aesthetics?
Aesthetics are embodied in the elements that compose the form, as well as in the nature of colours and inks. They are in the movement of forms, in their interaction and communication, association and fusion. They reside in the dialogue between tall and short, straight and curved, and in the transformation from thickness to transparency and from warmth to coldness.
They are also in the safe and successful exit from the inner self to appear and become manifest on the pages of a work of art. They lie in the sincerity and truthfulness of carrying what was being felt deep in the soul and the spirit.