Finding the ‘spirit of freedom’ in artist Samir Sayegh’s calligraphy

Sayegh was a lecturer at the American University of Beirut for 14 years. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 March 2020

Finding the ‘spirit of freedom’ in artist Samir Sayegh’s calligraphy

  • For Lebanese artist Samir Sayegh, ‘classical calligraphy is dead,’ but he continues to work towards a renewed ‘universal’ form

BEIRUT: “Here you have the spirit of calligraphy,” says the artist Samir Sayegh, pointing to one long fluid brushstroke on canvas. “It is energy that gives it balance. This energy comes from a certain set of feelings — feelings that are deep inside — and the contemplation of who you are as a human being. Life, love, fear, anxiety, stress… all these feelings. This internal spectrum of emotions is what moves the hand and gives it a sense of steadfast purpose.”

If you were to imagine an artist in your mind’s eye, Sayegh might possibly be the end result. Although without his trademark French beret, he is dressed in a brown kimono and has a slate-gray scarf wrapped loosely around his neck. His studio — as cluttered and eccentric as one would hope — is filled with the tools of his trade, while the walls are adorned with works of varying size and style. A selection of tools — pliers, end cutters, a hacksaw, two wooden mallets and an old hand-powered drill — hang in one corner beneath 22 small geometric art pieces and the studio’s medley of surfaces and bookcases are either partially or fully covered by the workings of his imagination.

This artwork by Sayegh was created in 2014. (Supplied)

Sayegh’s art, although based on individual letters or words, has little to do with language or meaning. It is purely aesthetic. He has, during the course of his career, stylized both the geometric and free-flowing variations of Arabic calligraphy, creating a universally appreciable practice based on form and beauty. For his geometric work, that has meant a focus on equilibrium and a dialogue between line and space. For the more free-flowing pieces, it has meant a system based on movement and balance. 

“What unifies my two styles is a spirit of freedom,” he says in his home in Beirut, pouring three cups of coffee; the strong, thick, aromatic kind capable of raising the dead. One cup for him, one for me, and one for his wife Mona, who is helping out as a translator. 

“3ain” is a 100x100cm Acrylic canvas created in 2008. (Supplied)

The words ‘spirit’ and ‘energy’ are sprinkled liberally throughout our conversation, just as certain words are repeated within his work, particularly hob (love) and salam (peace). You get the sense that Sayegh, who is also a poet and a critic, is a hippy at heart, although he is more often described as avant-garde or a “pioneer” of Arab modernism. The latter label stems largely from his experimentation with the structural and abstract possibilities of traditional calligraphy.

Sayegh, in essence, has ignored the calligraphic rules established by Ibn Muqla during the Abbasid Caliphate and later refined by Ibn al-Bawwab and the Ottomans, and has concentrated instead on freeing calligraphy from the constraints of language. That liberation has stemmed, in part, from a love of modern art and geometric minimalism. It has also emerged from an interest in the relationship between traditional and contemporary art and from a love of mathematical precision.

Sayegh created “Fa’” in 2013. (Supplied)

“The thin line here is slim according to a regulation whereby it’s a third of the space that a thicker line takes,” he says, explaining a large geometric representation of the letter ‘qaf’ that hangs on the wall. “It’s a mathematical process between symmetry and balance. It’s a conversation between parts that are full and parts that are vacant, between the long and the short, between the horizontal and the vertical, between the thin and the thick, all according to a set of regulations. This is what gives the artwork a dimension and a spirit. This is what renews the art of calligraphy and makes it universal.”

Like many Arabic calligraphers, Sayegh was first introduced to the art form at school. It was there that he first used forbidden ink, immersed himself in the Arabic dictionary (Al-Munjid), and was praised for the beauty of his handwriting. It was within Al-Munjid that he first encountered Kufic and the six scripts codified by Ibn Muqla — Naskh, Muhaqqaq, Rayhani, Thuluth, Ruqʿah and Tawqi. However, Kufic, with its long vertical lines, pronounced angularity and proportional measurements, was a favorite and remains so. 

Sayegh finished working on “LOVE” in 2016. (Supplied)

His work is not without its critics, not least because his focus on aesthetics — both in terms of form and the colors and inks he uses — can be misunderstood. There’s also a certain level of ambiguity to his art. Some of his work, particularly those pieces that are free-flowing, could just as easily be interpreted as representations of individual letters as not. What’s more, he has been critical of traditional calligraphy — outspoken even — stating that it reduces the individual practitioner to a master craftsman at best, rather than an artist.  

“I have been calling for 40 years to put an end to traditional calligraphy,” says Sayegh, who was a lecturer at the American University of Beirut for 14 years. “Classical calligraphy no longer has a path in life. It has been dead since the time of the Ottomans. This viewpoint might seem controversial, but that’s because people consider calligraphy only to be related to language and religion. They see it as a nationalistic thing, as a matter of identity, and this is a political and social issue and has nothing to do with art.”

“Nūn” was done by Sayegh in 2017. (Supplied)

For Sayegh, the rules and regulations of traditional calligraphy should be discarded, not just because they limit creativity and expression, but because they have no real place in the modern world.

“I personally believe, after a lifetime and all of my experience, in the unity of the universe and the oneness of humankind,” says Sayegh, who readily admits that people never truly understand what he’s trying to say. “People are one. And if we searched deep, deep, deep inside we would all meet each other there. Because when your inner voice, or your inner energy, is transmitted truthfully, people will understand it no matter who they are.

“Jīm-Jā” is one of Sayegh’s most recent creations done in 2019. (Supplied)

“My understanding of calligraphy is that it’s not the calligraphy that carries the final meaning. The last word is not declared by this painting or drawing. The true meaning of the drawing is in the interpretation of it by the viewer. Because the viewer will have interacted with it or somehow conversed with it. The drawing is a loud voice and whoever can hear it will understand what it’s saying — as if the painting is calling out for them, either to come closer or to move away. This is art.”

UAE brand’s fresh approach to skincare looking good for future

Having lived in Dubai for more than seven years, Kathryn Jones learned a lot about the Middle Eastern market and the needs of people who live within the region. (Shutterstock)
Updated 25 May 2020

UAE brand’s fresh approach to skincare looking good for future

DUBAI: Skincare products can quite often sit on shelfs or in delivery vehicles for weeks and months, stored in unsuitable conditions.

And despite brands promoting them as organic and natural, some customers might question the effectiveness of products left lying around for long periods after being produced.

However, Kathryn Jones, founder of the UAE-based brand Kathryn Jones Hand Blended Serums, or KJ Serums for short, told Arab News how her company created fresh products every month for customers.

Jones, who is originally from Wales, in the UK, launched KJ Serums in 2017 and started her brand “out of necessity.” (Supplied)

“The concept of a freshly-made skincare serum is something quite different and our customers have really embraced it. They appreciate it’s a fresh product that must be used up within a month when it’s at its most active and effective and repurchased – almost like a food stuff,” she said.

Jones, who is originally from Wales, in the UK, launched KJ Serums in 2017 and started her brand “out of necessity.”

She added: “I simply could not afford the prices of some of the top skincare brands but still wanted excellent results.”

With her background in the biopharmaceuticals industry, she started experimenting and developing her own formulas. “The core proposition is ‘hand blended’ because that’s how it all started, by hand blending and perfecting the serum formulas myself here in the UAE,” she said.

Having lived in Dubai for more than seven years, the entrepreneur learned a lot about the Middle Eastern market and the needs of people who live within the region.

“Our climate here is extreme often for eight months or more of the year, especially in the Gulf region. A lot our customers will ask for a product that reduces oiliness and sheen on the skin and are reluctant to purchase products that contain a lot of oils, or are very heavily moisturizing,” Jones added.

The businesswoman believes the Middle East market is “wonderfully diverse” with different attitudes and expectations toward skincare products.

“Of course, this is a challenge to develop effective products which can address many different skin types and issues, but the market is truly receptive to new concepts,” she said.

Jones pointed out that with the current lockdown situation due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), people had more time to care for their skin.

“The coronavirus pandemic has obviously confined us to our homes, and, given the steady increase in the number of enquiries we are receiving, it suggests consumers currently have more time to consider their online skincare purchases and perhaps have more time to invest in an effective routine,” she said.

On whether the COVID-19 outbreak would change the future of the skincare industry, Jones added: “I think that many consumers, either through necessity or out of a desire to support local brands might have chosen to source their products from different manufacturers and therefore brand loyalties may have been affected to a certain extent.”