Lebanese artist and filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige are acutely aware of the misrepresentations and selectivity of events that are turned into history by those who write it. Both were raised in Lebanon, arriving at adulthood during the country’s civil war (1975–90), and began their filmic practice in the 1990s as a way of coming to terms with the sociopolitical situation surrounding them. Through research and investigation, which are central elements of their practice, Hajithomas and Joreige blend fact and fiction, interrogating the often misconstrued official histories of national textbooks, where the Lebanese Civil War remains omitted. Travelling to remarkable moments and places in history, from the Lebanese rocket launches of the 1960s to the war-torn streets of Beirut to the depths of the ocean, their projects reactivate the disregarded stories of the past, including the abiding echoes of warfare and the enduring legacies of the dead.
Mounted across two venues in Sharjah Art Foundation’s art spaces, “Two Suns in a Sunset” surveys Hadjithomas and Joreige’s two-decade-long collaboration, exhibiting 21 works and 6 feature films spanning from the late 1990s to the present day. Conceived with five curatorial threads in mind, the exhibition begins with works that reflect how Hadjithomas and Joreige dealt with the presence of violence in Beirut during the war. The Circle of Confusion (1997–2016) fragments an aerial photograph of Beirut into 3,000 pieces, individually numbered and tagged on the back with the phrase “Beirut does not exist.” The work invites visitors to select and remove a photographic fragment from the installation as a keepsake. As pieces of Beirut are removed, an underlying mirror becomes visible—one that represents Beirut as a site of manifold readings and a place in perpetual flux.
The second, third and fourth curatorial thread collectively consider how Hadjithomas and Joreige attempt to shift our gaze to what is no longer visible, discuss the unspeakable and offer an alternate narrative for Lebanon’s history. The ghostly three-minute film Lasting Images(2003), and an accompanying installation of the film’s negatives entitled 180 Seconds of Lasting Images (2006), are deeply entrenched in a story that is explicitly personal for Joreige, while also universally relatable to the estimated 17,000 Lebanese civilians who endured the same fate as the artist’s uncle, who was kidnapped at the height of the Lebanese Civil War and was never to be seen again. In 2001, Joreige came across his uncle’s personal archives and discovered an undeveloped Super-8 film roll that had miraculously survived the ravages of war. Hadjithomas and Joreige eventually developed the film, which appeared white, veiled and hazy. After much color correction, the artists discovered faint images that resurfaced: the ethereal shadows of a hand, a person, a boat and a port. The project mirrors the war’s legacies that fight to stay alive in the present day, despite efforts of the authorities to disregard the tragedies as a chapter of history to be forgotten.
Faces (2009) uses drawing as a tool for reviving the bygone. For many years Hadjithomas and Joreige selectively photographed posters of local martyrs that line the walls of cities and villages in Lebanon. With the posters in these photos, over time the elements have caused the featured faces and names to progressively deteriorate, leaving anonymous figures with no traceable history. Interested in this silhouette, the artists attempted to recover some of the men’s faces and discerning features through drawing. Another of the duo’s photographic work brings the unspeakable to the surface, quite literally atop a long table. Objects of Khiam (1999–2013) conveys the survival of detainees who had been imprisoned at the former Khiam detention center in southern Lebanon. Presented as a series of 60 photographs portraying utilitarian and artistic objects secretly made by the prisoners during their detention, Objects of Khiam is a bold statement of humanity’s resilience in the face of evil.
In the fifth and final thread of the exhibition, poetry, in the form of video works, is proposed as a means of countering and opposing modern-day violence. Two new video projects commissioned for the exhibition star as the centerpieces. The 50-minute film ISMYRNA(2016) uses the stories and personal experiences of Hadjithomas and Lebanese artist and poet Etel Adnan as the basis to examine changes in the region following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Remembering the Light (2016), comprising a pair of eight-minute videos, explores the temporal nature of memory through the mysteries of the ocean. In one video, a scarf is tossed into the sea, its colors slowly fading as it sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss, while another video portrays vibrantly dressed divers submerging themselves into the waters, allowing themselves to be carried toward an unknown fate.
Beginning with objects that are oftentimes acquired by chance, Hadjithomas and Joreige assume the role of researchers, delving into associated histories, stories and connections. Granting ample time for each individual project to unfold, Hadjithomas and Joreige allow for unpredictable directions and new turns to occur in their work. Driven by developments in their investigations, the artists offer unrestrained alternative narratives for Lebanese history, whose devastating and tragic events has left a scarring mark on the country. “Two Suns in a Sunset” gathers many of the pair’s most significant works, mounting them under a curatorial direction that exposes refreshing ways to view the artists’ practice—as one that is filled with compassion for the past and hope for the future.