Artist Lana Khayat's meditative contemplations on nature and calligraphy

The Lebanese creator was born into a family of master craftsmen, but has forged her own path as a painter

Sea of Love (2018) by Lana Khayat. Photo: Lana Khayat
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Art mimics the elusive patterns of nature, but it is up to the creator to uncover these, says Lebanese painter Lana Khayat.

“I experiment with the elements and with geometry, and I dissect the painting into different parts. It's about finding the calm in the chaos. I spend a lot of time in nature alone, so I'm inspired by it,” Khayat, who splits her time between Valencia and Dubai, tells The National.

Her painting Rising Sun (2022), which was most recently shown at the London Art Biennale, reveals layers of delicately painted strokes in blue, black and white.

The dense abstract image evokes the landscapes of Japanese miniature and the poetry of Islamic calligraphy – one in which the lettering appears in an unknown language. It is 2 by 2 metres wide – which is typical of Khayat’s large-scale abstract work.

“You see repetition, you see calligraphy and geometry that all comes together,” she says.

But the blue also evokes the tilework of Islamic architecture. “Blue is always in my work, I always come back to that blue.”

For this, and other works, Khayat was selected among 10 artists, curators and collectors by the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Youth to take part in a course on Islamic arts, organised by Christie’s Education in London.

“I was honoured to be the only non-Emirati to be selected for this programme,” she says, and that it was “an opportunity to delve more into Islamic arts, and learn more about its significance and its beauty”.

Khayat’s large-scale paintings can take up to six months to produce, with hours spent daily in her studio.

Her meticulous, labour-intensive approach is a form of communion. “There is a meditative and transcendent quality to calligraphy. It is spiritual – a way of seeing the beauty in this world in the form of oneness with God,” she says.

Khayat was seeped in Islamic arts from an early age – but from a more intuitive perspective. She came from a family of artisans, and watched her father and grandfather restore the elaborate interiors of Lebanese and Syrian homes and palaces.

Khayat’s great-grandfather, Mohammed Sulaiman Khayat was a Damascene craftsman known for his elaborate wooden interiors and furniture, which included mother of pearl inlay and marquetry. His creations have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design in Hawaii.

Mohammed Sulaiman’s skills were passed down to Khayat’s father, who was born in Lebanon’s Beiteddine Palace, the 19th-century residence of the Emir Bashir Shihab II. Mohammed Sulaiman's parents had been living there as his own father was restoring the Ottoman era complex.

Though art runs in the family, convincing them that she would also follow was a challenge. “I came from a family of male artists, I had to fight for my place,” she says.

After studying graphic design at the American University of Beirut, she went to the Pratt Institute in New York, becoming the first woman in her family to study there.

As a student, she dabbled in painting, experimenting mainly with figurative works. She made the move to abstraction around 2010, after seeing her great-grandfather’s restoration of a Damascene room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Things came full circle for me then,” she says. “I wanted to find my voice and didn’t want to repeat what my family was doing.”

Though she started working with calligraphy, she did not like the associations to the craft, seeking a more contemporary voice.

“I was sad when people called me a calligrapher,” she says.

Among her contemporary influences is Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, whose work was also shaped by her time in New York in the post-war decades.

Farmanfarmaian’s kaleidoscopic works explore Sufi mysticism and geometry, while being inspired by the city’s abstract art movement.

Nature plays an important role in the works and Khayat finds inspiration in the outdoors.

She often goes for walks along the river and in the Mediterranean forests of Valencia, where she spends part of the year and has a studio. These walks are reminiscent of her childhood summers spent hiking in the mountains of Lebanon.

"I spend a lot of time there. The nature really talks to me. I just dissect the leaves, the flowers and the colours," she says.

Her travels to Asia are also visible influences in her paintings, and she says she was inspired by the rich colour schemes in China.

Khayat, who is represented by Jeddah’s Hafez gallery, feels she has now reached a “maturity” in her work.

The course at Christie’s introduced her to Islamic Arts from an academic perspective for the first time – she was struck by the detailed miniatures of the Safavid era, and the blues of Mamluk architecture.

“I had the privilege of engaging with esteemed educators and researchers of Islamic Arts. I was granted exclusive access to the Albukhary Islamic World Collection and given private tours of the illustrious Leighton House and other captivating venues,” she says.

“A particularly awe-inspiring moment was witnessing a never-before-seen 500-year-old Manuscript Quran at Christie’s."

She hopes the Christie’s programme will help her to lead a “renaissance” in Islamic Arts – both in the footsteps of her great-grandfather and distinct from the age-old traditions that he upheld.

“The vision I hold dear – the Islamic Art Renaissance – is just the beginning of a profound movement, and I am thrilled to embrace what the future holds."

Updated: August 15, 2023, 5:29 PM