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Finding freedom in the Lebanese mountain
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BEITEDDINE: In the Ottoman-era palace of this Chouf village, a locked, windowless room contains a treasure trove of artefact and story rolled into one. The trove is comprised of the works in “Days of Freedom,” an exhibition of recent work by Samir Sayegh, arguably Lebanon’s best-known calligrapher.

Though it is kept under lock and key, this is one exhibition that is worth expending a little effort to see – and a courteous caretaker makes access easy enough to obtain.

Absent from this show are Sayegh’s immediately recognizable geometric designs, with their rich colors and delicately applied gold leaf. In their place is a series of sketchy, frenetic paintings, which reveal both the extent of Sayegh’s creativity and precision.

Curated by Agial Gallery founder Saleh Barakat, “Days of Freedom” is described as a diary, a tribute to the events of the Arab Spring in the form of a series of renditions of the word “freedom” (hurriya), executed in a bewildering variety of colors, shapes, sizes and styles.

Like the uprisings – which sparked in a half dozen or so countries in the Middle East and North Africa last year – these pieces exude a spontaneous, almost experimental quality, as if Sayegh were asking “Can I really do this? And what will happen if I try?”

To create the deceptively simple, often unfinished-looking, renderings of the single word, the artist uses a brush – an unusual tool in Arabic calligraphy, which traditional lore has it is formed with a dried reed or bamboo dipping pen.

The thin, sketchy look of the ink in many of the lines betrays the speed with which Sayegh creates his forms – astounding when you consider the infallible straightness of his lines, his unerring repetition of the same curve, time after time.

Sayegh’s precision may be born of many years of hard work, but this does not diminish its impact. His work is a unique blend of control and freedom, premeditation and spontaneity.

In contrast with the dimly lit stone room, with its antique vaulted ceilings, the swirling letters seem almost ephemeral – a series of fleeting moments and emotions captured like a pinioned butterfly on paper.

Each ink-on-paper work is unframed, instead sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas, giving the exhibition a scrapbook-like aspect. The works range from large sheets of paper covered with tiny sketches – simple studies in preparation for larger paintings – to colorful series of overlapping words, so layered in some cases that they become chaotic and nearly illegible. Only a handful of the works appear to be finished pieces, thicker, more deliberate-looking lines contrasted with a sketchier background.

The unfinished pieces are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show. Though they are unlikely to end up in the British Museum along with Sayegh’s more structured work, they reveal the artist’s creative process, his experimentation and gradual development of ideas.

Sayegh is also a poet, and his elegant turn of phrase is evident throughout the short text that is the only written accompaniment of the exhibition, whose individual pieces are untitled and unlabelled.

“This diary is a tribute to the rare historical moments that we witnessed last year,” begins the text, entitled “Freedom diary.” “It was ignited by burning flames that later turned into soothing rain, then was followed by footsteps rushing into town squares, hands rising in the air and voices mounting from streets and porches to fill the Arab sky with cries for freedom.”

The emotions radiating from these historic events are redolent in every piece. An angular black rendering of the word “freedom,” controlled and deliberate, is surrounded by a sea of smaller, sketchier versions of the word, a fiery red impulsive and unrestrained.

In another piece, elegant, swooping trains of purple, maroon and ochre are interwoven to form a swirling pattern, looping separate versions of the word together into one entity, a colorful piece of netting.

“This diary is also a tribute to Arabic calligraphy,” Sayegh continues, “such that it may free itself from the ages of oblivion and darkness, and relate to the heart not to the past, to the eyes not to the rules and conventions, to the realm of imagination and dream not to past achievements.”

The exhibition is certainly a departure from Sayegh’s more formal work – in which letters become almost abstract, transformed into geometric designs. It is a lively, revealing set of drawings which echo the spirit of revolution in visual form, revealing the versatility of Arabic calligraphy when all the rules, all the traditional scripts and techniques are set aside in favor of, well, freedom.

Samir Sayegh’s “Days of Freedom” is up at Beiteddine Palace until the end of August. For more information please contact the Agial Gallery in Hamra by calling 01-345-213.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2012, on page 16.
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