Installation view of ZEINA MAASRI’s “Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War (1975–1990)" at Planet Discovery Exhibition Hall, Beirut, 2008. Photo by Agop Kanledjian.

Beirut’s Long-Awaited Home Works IV


On April 12, following months of delay, Beirut’s leading contemporary art organization, Ashkal Alwan, launched the fourth installment of Home Works, the groundbreaking arts forum that has become the benchmark for cultural discourse in West Asia. Held in venues throughout the Lebanese capital over eight days, the multidisciplinary program included art exhibitions, lectures, performances and screenings. Pointing to the lack of official and private arts funding in Lebanon, the program received most of its support from international sponsors such as the Ford Foundation, the Open Society and the British Council.

The highly anticipated series was set to open in 2007 but was delayed due to the country’s unstable political and economic situation, as outbreaks of violence and protest crippled sections of the city. This was not the first time Ashkal Alwan was forced to postpone Home Works. Since its inception in 2002, the association has faced interruptions following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005. Not surprisingly, organizers admit that the volatile climate has produced “a regular schedule of regular disruptions.”

Correspondingly, the forum has gained a reputation for not shying away from political content. This year’s edition was no exception. It commenced near the anniversary of the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War and featured such events as journalist Hazem Saghieh’s panel “Why Do We Kill Ourselves? A Reading of ‘Suicide Missions’” and the exhibition “Signs of Conflict: Political Posters of Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990),” curated by American University Professor Zeina Maasri. While political overtones were present in the lineup, the “thematic axes” of the fourth edition were outlined as “disaster, catastrophe, recomposing desire and sex practices.”

Keeping with Ashkal Alwan’s emphasis on promoting new media work, a number of exhibitions featured leading West Asian artists working in video and installation. The “Home Works” exhibition, hosted by the chic Beirut outpost of Hamburg-based gallery Sfeir Selmer and curated by Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme, presented an international roster of artists negotiating notions of memory and home. Standout works included Emily Jacir’s elaborate installation Material for a Film (2004- ), which examines the assassination of Palestinian writer Wael Zuaiter (see AAP 54 & Almanac 3), and Michael Rakowitz’s meticulous use of Middle Eastern food packaging and Arabic-language newspapers to reconstruct looted artifacts from Baghdad’s Iraq National Museum in The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2005-08). 

Recent Lebanese conflicts factored heavily into the forum as seen with Agial Art Gallery’s pairing of Back to the Present (2007), Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s video and photography exploring the legacy of Khiam Prison, a detention camp used during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, alongside Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s Bent Jbeil (2008), a video set in a Lebanese village badly damaged during the 2006 Israeli invasion. Leading local architect Bernard Khoury delivered “Working in the Private Sphere,” a provocative lecture on the state of Lebanese architecture under current profit-driven reconstruction efforts, while multimedia artist Rabih Mroue revived his critically acclaimed and formally banned play How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke (2007) about at the Lebanese Civil War.

Extending its scope beyond the Arab world, other Home Works highlights included several lectures on the history of Iranian photography by artists Bahman Jalali and Rana Javadi and the screening of filmmaker Vahid Zara Zade’s POW 57187 (2007), a documentary about an Iraqi prisoner of war in Tehran who decorates prison grounds with murals, life-size sculptures and dioramas.