Reshaping Letters

eirut-born artist Noha Balaa Sinno was forced to leave her hometown during a bloody civil war that ravaged Lebanon for 15 years. Like many other Lebanese, Sinno settled abroad only to return to her home country some 20 years later for her first solo painting exhibition titled Reshaping Letters.

Sinno, who initially majored in interior design, did not embrace painting until 2000. All it took was to create a greetings card for a friend. What started off as a personal favor became a mini-business venture.

“[The card] came out beautifully, so I printed [a bunch of them] and sold them… Why wouldn’t I do more?” she told NOW Extra. Starting with simple Arabic phrases and words, such as Mabrouk (Congratulations) and Shokran (Thank you), Sinno eventually decided to embrace her love for the Arabic language by creating art using Arabic calligraphy and childhood memories.

This coined the theme of her work in Reshaping Letters. Interwoven with patterns and images reminiscent of a lost past, Sinno took Arabic letters and adapted them. “I make my own letters,” she said. “I put some classical letters in among my own.”

Sinno explained what drives her to create each piece. Referring to “Garden Inspiration,” the artist said that she wanted to form a vision from her culture. Elements of Oriental or Arabic cultural designs appear in most of Sinno’s works. According to the artist, “these are not taken… [but] remembered. I have objects in my home or old clothes, and I draw inspiration from them.”

Historically speaking, the use of Arabic calligraphy in artwork is nothing new. Often referred to as Islamic calligraphy, it is regarded as a fundamental part of Islamic art.

But Sinno was quick to note that calligraphy writing styles date back to before Islam. “Islam [helped] spread this form of calligraphy, but it didn’t create it,” she stated.

However, it remains difficult to separate the two since many of Sinno’s paintings have a religious bent. “Imagined Peace” and “Thanks be to God” are obvious examples. The former sits on a purple background of letters with a cloister hanging at the top. Upon closer inspection, one sees the word Salam (Peace) written over and over again. “Salam here is [unreachable]; it’s an imagined salam,” explained Sinno.

Reshaping Letters can be described as kitsch and bright. But do not let that dissuade you from taking the time to examine the art that has been meticulously painted. Indeed, it is this that makes Sinno’s work even more appealing.

American art critic and essayist Clement Greenberg once wrote: “‘Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas.” There is nothing derogatory about that; it’s just different. This is true of Sinno’s work, which can take up a month to finish a single piece. “It’s very meticulous work, [but I do it] out of respect for my language and my culture.”

This is what a viewer can take away from Reshaping Letters: a love for a land and culture long left behind. It remains up to the viewer to decide on the nature of the work. As Sinno said, “Take whatever message you like from it. No one interferes with me while I work, and I won’t interfere while you look at it.”

The exhibition Reshaping Letters runs until February 23 at the Art Circle Gallery. It is open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.