For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2003

Contemporary Arabic Calligraphy by Khaled al-SaaIi

November 2, 2002 to January 26, 2003
Works on Paper Gallery

Contemporary Arabic Calligraphy by Khaled al-Saa’i
Khaled al-Saa'i, Syrian, b. 1970,
Untitled, 2000
Natural ink, tempera, and watercolor on paper
Collection of the artist

From Morocco to Jakarta, across the vast spread of Asia and Africa that embraces the Islamic faith, the most highly treasured art form is Arabic calligraphy. Scribes of all ages compete for recognition in national and international competitions, and there is a sophisticated language of connoisseurship. This exhibition introduces, for the first time in North America, the work of an internationally recognized master in this tradition. Khaled al-SaaIi, a native of Syria, works in an astonishing range of styles, from decorous classical modes>=which he often uses for quotations from poetry>=to radically inventive compositions, in which lettering is fragmented into fantastical, almost pictorial compositions. The breathtaking beauty of his work makes it immediately accessible to all.

Born in 1970 , Khaled al-SaaIi grew up in a household of scholars and artists, surrounded by paintings, music, and calligraphy. He had already established a reputation as a calligrapher by the age of eighteen. In college, he chose to major in oil painting, usually considered a Western medium. Through art history courses he fell in love with the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French and German artists such as Ambroise Vollard, Emil Nolde, Cha>m Soutine, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Their impact is readily apparent in the paintings he did for his senior thesis, images of Arabian night club interiors rendered in intense colors and bold brushwork; in an indirect way, they may have inspired his experiments with color in calligraphy. For graduate work, however, al-SaaIi returned to Middle Eastern themes, studying Islamic art in all media. He received his MFA in 1998, graduating with the highest honors in the entire University of Damascus. Since then, he has participated in many international art competitions and held solo exhibitions in France, Spain, and several Middle Eastern countries.

The calligraphy style for which al-SaaIi is most famous is diwAnji jali, an elaborate script used only for royal decrees and legal documents at the court of the Ottoman Turkish emperors. Al-SaaIi plays with tradition by employing this script for transcribing verses by contemporary poets, including Octavio Paz of Mexico and Mudhaffar al Nawab of Iraq. In other work, such as NoahIs Ark (seen on the back cover of this issue of Insight) he transforms diwAnji jali into an entirely new art form. He performs similar magic on another traditional script, thuluth, which is drawn with a thick-nibbed pen. Al-SaaIi infuses his images with an intensely poetical vision and draws as well on Sufi philosophy in examining nthe core of things.