REEM BASSOUS in her studio at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Photo by Isabella E. Hughes for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Apr 21 2016

Studio visit with Lebanese artist Reem Bassous

by Isabella E. Hughes

Poised and with a sense of introspective elegance, Lebanese-born artist Reem Bassous warmly greets me in her studio, located on the third floor of the slightly scruffy art department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where she also teaches. In her studio, a slightly narrow and rectangular-shaped office space, a variety of small canvases depicting melancholic, empty buildings hang from the wall next to her desk. Nearby, larger, collage-like paintings made from a range of mediums are stacked against each other. Though each one is distinctive from the next, their layered surfaces adorned with bullet-like burns unify them to resemble a series. Shelved on two humble bookcases are an array of exhibition catalogues, books, paints and tchotchkes that give an insight into Bassous’ interests and personality—including her surprising affinity for robots.

I first learned of Bassous’ practice when I saw her recent solo exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, “Beyond the Archive: Paintings by Reem Bassous,” which opened in late 2015. For myself, having just repatriated to Hawai’i after living in the Arab world for nearly six years, it came as an unexpected surprise to learn of Bassous, a Lebanese artist who is thematically focused on her experience growing up under Lebanon’s civil war (1975–90), as well as her post-war existence. Many Lebanese artists have long been examining, and perhaps therapeutically addressing, the impact that the war has had on their own lives, communities and the overall national psyche. Examples include Mohamad Said Baalbaki, whose “Heap” series (2012–13) of paintings portrays piles of clothes referencing his childhood during the war, when his family was often uprooted and forced to move between different districts in Beirut; and Mona Hatoum, the grand dame of contemporary Arab art, whose Witness (2009) is a miniaturized sculpture, based on the Place des Martyrs monument in Beirut, which is bullet-ridden and serves as a reminder of the violence of conflict. For such artists, the war remains a powerful and recurring theme in their practice.

The artist’s sketches, notes and other sources of inspiration fill the walls next to her desk within the studio. Photo by Isabella E. Hughes for ArtAsiaPacific. 

In the case of Bassous, working over 8,000 miles away from her hometown of Beirut, her heady yet ethereal paintings, drawings and mixed-media works on paper and canvas are very much in dialogue with the post-civil war existence that many Lebanese artists are addressing today. At the same time, her work is aesthetically and conceptually original and weighty in their own right.

Bassous, who was born in 1978 in Lebanon, is a self-described “pure Beiruti all the way.” At five days old, her Lebanese parents flew the family back to Greece (where they were living at the time); but in 1982, when she was four, they returned to Beirut during one of the most brutal periods of the civil war. The impact of returning to Beirut was so profound that, more than 30 years later, Bassous created a work in response entitled Walking Away from 1982. In discussing the year referenced in the work’s title, she describes it matter-of-factly: “It is a year that everyone wants to forget—that and 1990. I think that coming back to Beirut after having spent those first four years in Greece, which was such a beautiful time . . . I remember . . . just thinking as a child . . . how ugly everything was [in Beirut]. There was a lot of sadness and tension that just surfaced as you saw people and heard their stories. Everything seemed desolate. And yet, when you are a child, life goes on—you play, you do everything a child would do. Children are the best at surviving. Lebanon was, at the time, the highest consumer of Valium and everyone seemed to be sedated all the time.” When reflecting on the precarious landscape of her youth, Bassous feels a strong sympathy for her parents, rather than self pity. She noted, “Being a mom now, [I understand that] to have a child in that situation must have been the hardest. When I think back I feel very sorry for my parents. The decision to go back [to Beirut in 1982] was made so we could be closer to our extended family [and was the reason] we stuck it out.”

Artistically inclined from a young age, Bassous always wanted to be an artist since she was very young, although she makes it clear that she had never thought of being a painter. Rather, the young Bassous wanted to originally train as a fashion designer, but, at the time that she entered the Lebanese American University, there were no fashion programs. Her father cajoled her to “stick it out” at the school under a different major, with the promise to send her to Europe afterwards to study fashion, which, in fact, quickly became obsolete. Bassous explains: “I studied fine arts with a concentration in painting, and I really did fall in love with painting. Very early on in my studies, I realized it was so much more than just image-making. By the time I was done with my degree, I knew I wouldn’t go into fashion. Right after I graduated I went to graduate school in Washington, DC, at George Washington University, and started teaching art at the Washington Studio School.”

It was during this time that Bassous found her love for teaching. After spending time in DC, she and her husband moved to Malaysia for a year, after which he started a PhD program in Honolulu in 2007, which is how Bassous ended up in the island city. “I quickly realized being in Hawaii that it was the perfect place for me to do my work. It wasn’t so divorced from the world. In fact, it was so much more in touch with politics and current issues, and had a much more engaged community than other places I’d lived on the [mainland],” Bassous shares.

Inside the studio of REEM BASSOUS. Photo by Isabella E. Hughes for ArtAsiaPacific. 

Acknowledging the undercurrent of weightiness to her work, Bassous is quick to point out that Hawai’i is an ideal environment for her practice, as she can always “step outside and see all of this,” which she says while gesturing toward the louvered windows of her studio-office space to the stunning blue sky outside and the lush, tropical beauty that abounds even on the highly urbanized, sprawling University of Hawai’i campus. In her studio, she creates work that are incredibly layered, both physically and psychologically, and full of heavy themes. Her semi-autobiographical works are, in many ways, odes to her own account and memories of the Lebanese civil war, yet they also serve as a metaphor for post-war experiences that beleaguer many artists coming from regions of political instability.

REEM BASSOUSUs and Them, 2015, acrylic, flashe, casein and charcoal on canvas, 183 × 213 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

REEM BASSOUSGhosts, 2010, acrylic, collage, colored pencil on paper and mylar, 76 x 56 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

“I love the thought process that goes behind making a painting,” says Bassous, expressing her deep reverence for the practice. Although a self described “fast painter,” Bassous accomplished the seemingly impossible with her recent solo show that was held at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HMA), for which she created all new works in under nine months. She explains that there was a gap in the museum’s exhibition schedule and, in March 2015, HMA assistant curator Healoha Johnston, whom Bassous has known for six years, asked her if she would be up for the task, which resulted in a total of 10 new pieces; six of them being extremely large, measuring at roughly six by seven feet. “With pieces this large, there is considerable time spent just covering surfaces,” remarks Bassous on her layering process for the paintings. When discussing her layering technique, Bassous shares that she often stretches the canvas two or three times, because she burns through their surface and loves that she can manipulate canvas to that degree, which is as integral to her process, in some instances, as the layered painting and collage technique that she employs in her work.

For Bassous, one work in particular sticks out from her recent solo show, which is a piece entitled Us and Them. A particularly layered work, Bassous jokes that it has her “heart, soul and blood in it, because I have so much in there. As a painter, I love the abstract expressionistic approach, which has always made sense to me, [in that] you start from structure, from life, and then you break it down, kill it and bring it back multiple times. I love that aspect of painting, where you build a very true dialogue with the work by responding to the needs of the piece.”

An amalgam of reference points abounds in Bassous’ work, which is richly evocative of patterns, shapes and memories from her Levantine upbringing, as well as the distinctively haunting experience of a childhood colored by war. Mashrabiya latticework windows that are commonly found within architecture throughout the Arab world, as well as other elements of Islamic geometric design, recur in Bassous’ work. Other references include personal memories, current affairs and iconography from Lebanon, such as the artist’s own take on Place des Martyrs (a historic square located in central Beirut), and rows and rows of melancholic, abandoned buildings reminiscent of what one still sees today in certain neighborhoods of Beirut from the aftermath of the civil war.

Meditative, yet clearly continuing to work through her own life’s experiences by embedding them into her practice, and hence giving her art an autobiographical quality, Bassous is a force to be recognized—as one who pushes the boundaries of her medium, as well as the preconceptions toward the process and artwork of post-civil war Lebanese artists.