Encounter with Carla Salem, Artist

Encounter with Artist Carla Salem

“Paper is the silence of writing”


How did calligraphy become your personal medium?

My medium in terms of expression is paper. It is the tree that the paper starts from, actually. I chose paper because I thought that it was the silence of writing. I looked for silence in paper thinking that the absence of writing would ultimately be just that. While making paper I found that the surface itself had expression and went on connecting my thoughts in different languages with this paper. Letterforms are both ideographic and syllabic in Japanese, while in my mother tongue Arabic they are either phonetic or practically non-existent (Lebanese dialect). Sometimes these languages (Japanese and Arabic) exchanged roles on paper. This is where my challenge began in terms of finding a visual way to represent on paper the languages and thoughts that were in my head, and as authentically as possible. I took calligraphy classes: first in the north of Japan, and then in Tokyo. I was introduced to a new way of writing with the brush that I had never encountered while I was living in Beirut. Even after studying, observing and reading about it for many long years, it took me a lot of courage to hold the reed pen (qalam) and write in Arabic. It wasn’t until I had gotten to Tokyo that I actually started to write my mother tongue. I dove into the core elements that constitute writing, the pigment and its tools: mainly paper and the light that goes through it.

Is there a new generation of calligraphers in the Mena region?

I am interested in writing as an immediate means of expression rather than as a traditional medium. A new generation of calligraphers means designers, artists and people who have voices. Perhaps not those who studied the structure of the Arabic letter Alef “ا” and are afraid to extend it a bit further because the rules say so. I go with those who push it until they run out of breath. Those are countless in the streets of Beirut, on its walls and buildings.

What is the space dedicated to this traditional medium nowadays within the academy and within institutions?

Much more efficient methods for contemporary communication have replaced traditional mediums, and the calligrapher per se, has gone to sleep. In Japan there are universities dedicated to teaching calligraphy as it still has its place and importance in that cultural context. Japanese students start learning it in schools at a younger age. Both learning institutions and families give it the importance it deserves, as they study it by heritage. In contrast, calligraphy in Lebanon might be taught as a course or two for students to get introduced to the traditional forms and styles. Initiative is then required from interested individuals, for they have to follow with their own research. Learning calligraphy or khatt, in Arabic, requires long years of training while abiding by the traditions and roots for each different script. I personally studied with Professor Samir El-Sayegh who taught me to follow the rules when I am unsure of what it is that I am writing. In other words, when concerned with the content of what I am trying to say, the writing shapes itself. I believe it is calligraphy itself that forges the rules into new directions and not the other way around. Perpetual change is part of the writing experience.
The works that were selected last year for an exhibit in Saudi Arabia (in collaboration with the British Museum) are a coagulation of my experiences in papermaking, printmaking and both Japanese and Arabic calligraphy. To be exhibited alongside varied styles of calligraphy in the Arab world from Iraq to Morocco - is an important new step; one that opens a new dialogue with this side of the world. 
Why did you decide to leave Lebanon and settle in Japan?
I never left Lebanon. I did not settle in Japan. Both have become part of who I am and I am neither there nor here. I believe my work is a result of experiences encountered in both countries.

You have been trained in various techniques of papermaking in Japan. Could you tell us about this knowledge?

While learning about papermaking in the north of Japan, I was treated like family. Knowledge comes from both hands-on experience and research. This specific experience that I was granted there and the generous attention that I was given in the papermakers’ factory in Niigata changed my way of looking at things. Through the papermaking process, I learned about Japanese language and lifestyle. I witnessed heritage and culture, and a way of living. Sometimes I had to reconsider my own values, while having to be very flexible to accept the amount of work it entails. By virtue of working with the land and understanding the hardships that farmers have to go through to create this material I understood why it is so precious. It is not only a technique that I was taught, but also a completely different lifestyle. Sustaining this lifestyle in a completely different context hasn’t been possible yet. Closely related to nature and the four seasons, papermaking is a very difficult process that requires a lot of patience, observation and physical labor. The result, paper that is both delicate and mature, is worth a lifetime of study.

You did a PhD in design at the very prestigious Tokyo University of Arts. Tell us about your research and how it relates with your practice as an artist?

My M.A. research was triggered by a first hand experience in papermaking that later developed towards an emphasis on the relation between papermaking and screen printing. This work eventually unfolded into a Ph.D. with a self driven research focused on lacquered printmaking using handmade paper techniques. Just as the paper is derived from one tree, the lacquer itself is a natural pigment that is derived from a different kind of tree. The result is artwork that is entirely derived from nature and that depends on two different materials and systems of writing for a complete reading. It is the relationship between material and context that reveals the meanings to be derived by each reader… I will leave it at that for now. My current work extends from that research and continues…

You have been recently awarded by the Boghossian Foundation Prize in Bruxelles. This Prize must have exposed your work to an extended platform. What are your plans for the coming months?

I am deeply thankful for this opportunity. The Boghossian Prize in Brussels will be an opportunity to encounter other forms of representation in Belgium. The foundation was established to enhance relations between the East and the West. My work is similar in the sense that it focuses on experiences relating this East to that other East. Regardless of who drew the map, both are part of the same continent and yet seem to be on different pages … I draw them on the same page to see how they can relate. When Mr. Albert Boghossian handed me the prize, I thanked him but he kindly replied that he did not do anything. He said that it was the artists who did all the work; while I believe that he gave us appreciation, energy, and more belief that ideas and hard work are being sought after. My plan is to keep working, while enjoying what I do. Just that. In a context where both Arabic and Japanese writing are foreign visual forms, it is definitely exciting to know how the artwork will be perceived rather than read.

Carla R. Salem
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