Forced to flee Lebanon at the height of the Civil War, Lebanese artist Noha Balaa Sinno now sees Arabic calligraphy as a link to her cultural heritage and her past, and uses it as a way of maintaining ties with the life she left behind more than 25 years ago.
“You only need art to bring people together and make them understand each other,” she says. Now living in Los Angeles, Sinno says. “I missed all the visual things I used to see in my country: shapes, colors, old buildings. So I tried to reinvent them in my world.”
Her first solo show in Beirut, “Reshaping Letters,” which opened at Art Circle Thursday, is her 31-painting attempt to convey her emotions using only Arabic letters and geometric designs. She sees Arabic calligraphy as a way of overcoming cultural barriers, whether or not the audience speaks or reads Arabic.
“When people in the West look at my work, or any calligraphy, they adore it, even without knowing the meaning of the words,” she says. “The letters by themselves are abstract, very elegant. To understand the Arab culture and psyche you only have to see the art. This is how we explain ourselves – by art, not by politics.
“My art is Arab in both letters and vision,” continues Sinno, who says that her work has not been influenced by American culture, but by the Middle East and countries with a history of Islamic art, such as India.
While she loves classical Arabic calligraphy, she has had no formal training in the art of classical calligraphic scripts. “I don’t try to imitate,” she says. “I try to reinvent something.” Her paintings show how the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy, which has evolved over the centuries, is still being adapted and re-envisioned by each new generation.
She uses the Arabic script in her art in several ways. Some paintings contain single letters, which Sinno selects for their shape alone. Others contain whole words and sentences, combining the aesthetics of the letters’ appearance with the meaning of the words themselves.
In “The Elements of Nature,” Sinno has used a square, geometric script to write the words for the four elements in Arabic, while the colors she employs represent the elements in another way, in the deep sea-blue background, and fiery red and gold script.
Sinno studied interior design at the Lebanese University, and says her design background has had a strong influence on her work. Though largely abstract, many of her paintings have architectural features, inspired by buildings she has seen in the Middle East. In one painting there is a balustrade from an old balcony, in another a row of traditional arched windows, or a half-concealed doorway.
Her paintings are incredibly vivid, combining rich, earthy colors with contrasting shapes; the flowing curves of the Arabic script and the straight lines of traditional Islamic geometry.
“Palm Reading” takes its influence from Egypt and combines bright reds, yellows and greens in a busy, vibrant patchwork of shapes and letters, mixed with several architectural features which give the suggestion of a city. In the center of the painting, four yellow hands are laid against a red backdrop, a reminder of the Hand of Fatima symbol which appears on amulets throughout the region.
By contrast, “Stone Inscriptions I,” is influenced by Tunisian art and architecture, and consists of simple, elegant dark blue words on a thick creamy background. The deep blue of the letters is reminiscent of the color of the blue paint on old, faded wooden doors.
By combining traditional Islamic and calligraphic influences such as flat geometric designs and Arabic script, with her own personal style, which includes architectural elements and the fluid, untrained use of Arabic calligraphy, Sinno has created a powerful series of paintings in which past and present meet.
Her paintings certainly had a good response from the crowd who gathered to attend the opening night Thursday. The high attendance meant that people were spilling out of the small gallery onto the street, and within an hour of the show’s opening red “sold” stickers appeared on about half the paintings.
Noha Balaa Sinno’s “Reshaping Letters” is at Hamra’s Art Circle Gallery until Feb. 23. For more information, call 03-027-776.