Aug 03 2021

Sculpture Commemorating Beirut Port Blast Draws Criticism

by Suining Sim

Installation view of NADIM KARAM’s 25-meter-tall steel sculpture The Gesture (2021) at the Beirut port, 2021. Image via Instagram.

On August 2, Lebanese artist Nadim Karam’s 25-meter-tall steel sculpture The Gesture (2021) was unveiled to the public on ground zero of the 2020 Beirut port explosions, marking the one-year anniversary of the disaster. The sculpture has already stirred mixed public reactions—while some are embracing the memorial, others are criticizing its timing as too soon and questioning the ethics of its production.

Weighing around 35 tons, The Gesture is made of steel from the port’s damaged hangars and depicts a giant offering a flower to the city. According to his artist statement, Karam created the work as “an act of memory and a gesture towards the immensity of sadness that marks the people of Beirut.” 

On July 28, Karam celebrated the completion of the statue and thanked “all the companies and public institutions who supported this huge initiative” in an Instagram post. Among the comments were mostly condemnations of the work. Some were concerned that “[the Beirut port] is still a crime scene,” as investigations into the explosion are ongoing, and thus questioned the ethics of creating art using the materials and site of the disaster. The sentiment of “too soon” resonated with others. Filmmaker Rawan Nassif told Reuters, “The killers have complete impunity and we are already pretending something is in the past and we are trying to transcend it through art.” 

Another point of contention was the alleged government backing of the work. In response to questions about authorizations and the source of funding for the sculpture’s construction, Karam published several Instagram posts on July 29, denying any government involvement. “No governmental institutions has been involved in any way in this project,” he emphasized. “The Gesture is a grassroots project. It has been put together over many months by a community of professionals who all worked Pro-Bono.” Yet according to reports from Mashable and The National, the project was not only supported by designers, arts institutions, and logistic companies, but also public offices including the Lebanese Army, as well as Home Security and the Port Authority, which provided permits. Those who consider the government responsible for the blast as well as the ongoing economic downturn thus criticized the sculpture as “a shame” and “propaganda art,” with activist Bachar El-Halabi questioning the artist’s “lack of remorse” for erecting the sculpture “over the dead bodies and running blood of the victims of the port explosion, after getting the ok to do so from the very criminals/perpetrators of the explosion itself.”

The 2020 Beirut port explosions killed more than 217 lives, injured at least 7,000, and displaced 300,000 people. The loss of economic activity worsened by the port’s destruction as well as Covid-19 has plunged more than half the population into poverty. Though the Lebanese parliament indicated on July 29 that it will drop immunity for top officials, who have thus far been protected from all legal questioning in relation to the explosions, it gave no details for when this would happen. The investigation remains stalled.

Suining Sim is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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