Khaled Al-Saa’i brings calligraphy art to Swarthmore

Renowned Syrian calligrapher Khaled Al-Saa’i visited campus Wednesday, March 23 to give a lecture and demonstration on his unique style of artwork. At 4:15 p.m. in the Scheuer Room, Al-Saa’i, in a gentle and unostentatious manner, projected his works on the screen and moved through each piece, explaining what aspects of life had influenced him in particular paintings.

He began by giving a brief description and displaying an array of traditional Arabic calligraphy, which, unlike Al-Saa’i’s own work, utilized little vibrancy of color and abided by a stricter adherence to traditional religious messages through the characters themselves. For someone who does not read Arabic, these works were still stunning in their own right, as the characters themselves looked like strokes of art.

And this, of course, is exactly what Al-Saa’i’s work attempted to do: create compositions in which the symbols themselves transcend language and become works of art. This approach to calligraphy, in which individual letters become abstract art, is called Hurufiyya in Arabic. Though some letters in a few of Al-Saa’i’s works could be translated, he emphasized the significance of the letters as art, conveying that his work is accessible to all audiences, not just to those who read Arabic.

“Sometimes we don’t even need to read the text, we can just give meaning visually … I’m using the letters on a very abstract level, to bring it to a different level, so people don’t need to read, or recognize, or figure out what [it] means … The aesthetic value of the letters themselves bring more challenges and more opportunities [to interpret],” said Al-Saa’i.

For an audience split between art students who did not understand the language, and professors and students of Arabic who did, this accessibility of Al-Saa’i’s art was apparent through all of his pieces. Some of the first few slides he showed were paintings inspired by underwater dives in the Red Sea. As he clicked through the images, he explained that he was inspired by philosophy, nature, great novels, poetry and other works of art, mentioning specific poems and books as he went along, such as poetry by Robert Frost. His use of color and the behavior of his brush strokes in these nature-inspired paintings truly captured the calm, yet powerful persona that nature evokes.

Visiting Assistant Professor and Section Head of Arabic at Swarthmore College, Benjamin Smith, gave an introduction to Al-Saa’i’s work at the beginning of the lecture that encapsulated the diversity of Al-Saa’i’s work, from inspiration by nature to emotional contemplations on present-day issues.

“Khaled’s work…is stunning, contemplative and emotive. He works in an astonishing range of styles, from classical modes to radically inventive compositions in which lettering is fragmented and fantastical, often stretching into beautiful landscapes,” Smith said. “The breathtaking beauty of his work makes it immediately accessible to all.”

Al-Saai then went on to discuss some of his more recent works, including a mural created in Germany that is part of an exhibition called “Away From Home.” This mural itself is titled “It is happening there,” and it acts as an artistic window into the recent violence and war in his home country of Syria. The piece, for obvious reasons, feels much more chaotic; it is composed of contrasting hues, mostly blacks, grays, reds, and whites, and contains phrases and images from the media of the sufferings and difficulties in the country as a result of the war.

For the latter half of the event, Al-Saa’i exhibited his unique approach to art and language through a demonstration. With a few sheets of paper and a couple of calligraphic tools, Al-Saa’i played around with certain characters and colors to represent abstract ideas such as hope, love, and wisdom. There was also someone in the audience celebrating their birthday, so he made a colorful piece with the Arabic words for birthday and celebration.

As his movements projected on the screen, the audience sat in silent wonder as his hand drifted gracefully along to create letters and strokes that transformed into beautiful mini art pieces. As he demonstrated, he also explained the historical significance of the different styles of calligraphy that he was painting. With each completed sheet, he handed it to someone in the audience as a gift.

His work was stunning and awe-inspiring for both Arabic and non-Arabic students, as Connor Hodge ’19 attested.

“I really enjoyed Khaled Al-Saa’i’s presentation a lot. His work is really super beautiful. It was also refreshing to engage with the language in a way that wasn’t drills or memorizing vocab,” said Hodge. “Languages at Swarthmore can be really exhausting, and it was great to have a reminder that there is a pay-off. We were also super lucky to have him come to class the next day, where he taught us the basics of a few styles, which was super cool.”

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