“Visual Synonyms” Exhibition: Creating New Design from the Combination of Japanese Logo Design and Arabic Calligraphy

Nelida Nassar    04.27.2018 

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“Synonymes visuels” (Visual Synonyms) is the title of an exhibition presenting 65
artworks currently at the French Institute of Lebanon (Institut français du Liban),
reaffirming France’s identity as a country of culture and its continuing role in the dialogue of cultures. The curators, professors Antoine Abi Aad and Rana Abu Rjeily, placed a premium on stimulating their students of visual communication to learn, respect and appropriate the rules and styles of Western typography but, in addition, to look beyond and break free from Western paradigms and to experiment with other forms and symbols.

More specifically, they were encouraged to deconstruct and reconstruct letters and
letterforms inspired from existing Japanese logos.
One reason Japanese logos stands apart from that of many other countries is that it doesn’t always follow the strict international code of design also known as the Swiss Style. Japanese logo design is unique in the way it unites traditional and modern aspects of design. It has roots in the traditional artistry of ancient seals, beautifully handcrafted shop signs – known as kanban – and family crests. Many logos are structured within the circle, which was used for centuries to contain monthe embellished emblems of different clans.

The second major source of creativity introduced by the curators was calligraphy. This raises the question: what is calligraphy? Kalligraphía is a Greek word derived from kallos “beauty” and graphos “writing,” and thus means beautiful writing. More than just a tool for communication, calligraphy is an art practiced in many languages. Arabic, Persian, Indian, Mongolian, Japanese and Chinese are major examples of languages where the art of beautiful writing has an important impact on local culture and is a major art.

What spark could be ignited if the estimated Arabic calligraphy was placed in dialogue with a deconstructed form of calligraphy stemming from Japanese logo design? The exhibition shows how successful the result of such a confrontation can be. The students were for the most part already familiar with the Arabic calligraphy of the Qur’an, which is also prevalent in many other domains, from architecture to coin design. Their first step was to select from books calligraphic images in the different styles of Arabic script consisting of Kufic, Thututh, Nasta’liq, Jali diwani, Naskh, Ruaq’a, Diwani, and Square Kufic.

The second step was for the students to understand how Japanese logos, logomarks and logotypes are formed. The latter are noted for their balance and rhythm, as well as their fluidity and spontaneity, and are often rich and dynamic compositions.  Then, in a third step, they deconstructed the Japanese logos adopting some of their elements for their own compositions. In addition they examined the samples of Arabic calligraphy they had selected and what was inspiring about them, producing several design iterations, including studies of contrast, letter spacing, word spacing movement, and pattern, in the process merging elements from the two disciplines of calligraphy and logo design.

They were able to take the Arabic calligraphy beyond its formal aesthetic, examining it through the prism of modernism and through the prism of another culture and style. In re-appropriating part of the past they attempted to transform it into a contemporary vernacular for Lebanon. The identification of one’s own past and present time in order to foster change should be a paramount goal of such endeavors.

Some of the show’s compositions gracefully liberate calligraphy from the meaning of
the words, bringing it back to the universe of signs and symbols, (figures 1, 2, 3, 4). In others, the students are clearly fascinated by the shapes of the letters rather than the context of the words in which they occur, thus letting the letters become playful, (figures 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). In other cases, the letters have been made more pliant, and developing into organic elements with dancing calligraphic dots or, alternatively, creating permutations of motifs within a precise geometry, (figures 10, 11, 12, 13, 14).

Above all, these young artists have created dramatic compositions that presage the
future while at the same time relying on the millennial traditions of their forefathers. With lines full of life reflecting emotions and beauty, these compositions convey strength and vigor, on the one hand, and graceful abandon, on the other. They indeed demonstrate the value of developing a contemporary approach to the use of calligraphy in the realm of design and of joining tradition with contemporary design and art.

The curators have instilled in their young students a desire for immediacy in the compositional art forms inspired from calligraphy and Japanese logo design, leading them away from mechanized typesetting (although all this is done with the help of computers and softwares) and towards a free mode of expression. Hurry to see the show and bask in its beauty and poetry.

Exhibition showing until April 30, 2018