“Rebirth: Lebanon XXIst Century Contemporary Art”
By Maha Majzoub
Thematic art shows in Lebanon are few and far between, let alone thematic shows solely produced by local artists on a topic so representative of the small nation. So when I learned that 49 Lebanese artists will treat the thorny subject of rebirth at “Rebirth: Lebanon XXIst Century Contemporary Art,” I scurried down to the Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC) in the posh and pastel, central district to check it out. Before I realized I will be gracing the mammoth halls of BEC on my own, I tried convincing friends, colleagues and even former coworkers to tag along. But everyone was at the beach . . . which is what you do in the summer if you are a Beiruti: You tan until you faint. Then you get back to work like a good sport.
I made a silent pact with myself to drop the show in the event that I saw one of two things: a) a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a local metaphor that has been used ad nauseam to symbolize the recurrent resurgence of the repeatedly war-battered Beirut, or b) a sandbag fort or checkpoint where local militias used to take cover during the 1975–1990 civil strife. Well a) greeted me at the entrance and b) was just a stone’s throw away. But artist Randa Ali Ahmad colored my memory of dreadful war sights with red, blue and yellow, which she painted on jute bags that were filled with red clay. She meticulously sprinkled her signature acrylic jasmines on the bags—an installation she calls Peaceful Shield (2011). As for the phoenix, although it was created by one of the better-known local artists, I pretended it did not exist. (And I will say no more about it because my unconscious has since repressed it.)
But another haunting bird had me at hello. It was a bronze sculpture of Icarus, the Greek mythical figure who fell to his death when he flew too close to the sun, causing the pair of wax-and-feather wings, made for him by his father, to melt. Completed in 2010, Icare is by Paris-based artist Mireille Honeïn, who is intrigued by Greek and Roman mythology, which she interprets in her sculptures and installations. Perhaps the most riveting artwork on show is Mohamad-Said Baalbaki’s One Hand Alone Can’t Clap (2011). Exhibited as a mock museum display, the bronze sculpture is a recreation of a dismembered arm of a bullet-ridden monument on Martyrs Square in Downtown Beirut, and is one of the most graphic reminders of the 15-year conflict. The title of the work is also a double entendre: it is not just about the missing limb of the war memorial statue, but also a traditional Lebanese adage suggesting that the communities within this multi-confessional nation cannot but unite, or else the break out of war will be inevitable.
It came as no surprise that many of the artists, whether from Beirut or part of the Lebanese diaspora, had chosen to explore the constantly revisited subject of the Lebanese civil war—but some pulled it off better than others. Other war-related pieces that merit a mention include Beirut One by One (2010) by painter Zena Assi and architect Issam Barhouch. We see layers of simple, white cardboard stuck on top of each other, interrupted by random horizontal lines of bullets, with a thin, fragile but hopeful layer of natural grass. It is a visual translation of the idea of coring a chunk of soil from the ground of Beirut, a city that has been through deep-rooted transformation. Although most artists presented one artwork each, many of which were produced for the show, there were some exceptions. Assi, a prolific artist based in Beirut, also showcased Ya Beirut Ya Set Eldouniah, a collage of a pregnant woman, with her clothes made from various clippings and cutouts relating to Beirut, as a portrayal of the Lebanese city. “We constantly treat Beirut in the feminine form, as if the city is a female or a woman . . . she’s been praised, courted, often betrayed and denied . . . so I wanted to portray Beirut in her womanhood,” Assi says. “But I’ve put her in the most fragile of states, torn in two, trying to give birth over and over again to this chaotic body of matter that we call identity.”
Not all pieces were packed with war drama—some understood rebirth through the context of time, memory, death or sex. Karim Joreige’s emotive black-and-white self-portrait interpreted rebirth as “hope dressed up as sadness,” while Beirut-born Palestinian artist Abdulrahman Katanani concentrated on the laughter of the Palestinian kids that broke the chains of suffering at the refugee camps. Then there is the comic relief of Lamia Ziade’s nine stencils, which explore Lebanon’s pop culture and the country’s unfathomable fascination with leisure and luxury.
Another thought-provoking metaphor hid in the bristles of Nada Sehnaoui’s brooms from the installation To Sweep (2011), which looks at rebirth as both the concrete act of starting over, as well as the abstract attempt to brush away societal issues such as dictatorship and a life of fear.
It was the range of artistic mediums as well as the thorough reading of rebirth that made the collective show unique. Organized by Solidere, the Lebanese company for the development and reconstruction of Downtown Beirut, and Danièle Giraudy, honorary director of the museums of Marseilles, France, “Rebirth” was curated by art collector Janine Maamari and co-curated by art historian Marie Tomb. “In choosing the theme, we did not necessarily have Lebanese history in mind. Rebirth is a theme open to many different interpretations, on the social, political and historical level, but also on the personal or artistic one,” Tomb explains. “Rebirth,” she says, is an optimistic theme, “and we believe that Lebanon and its art scene deserve a fresh start.” The fresh start could be in launching the debate about what contemporary Lebanese art is in a nation that agrees to disagree about pretty much everything. The fresh start could be in giving voice to emerging artists like 30-year-old Talar Aghbashian and veterans such as 80-year-old Huguette Caland and Laure Ghorayeb under one roof.
Some eyes rolled at the choice of BEC as the show’s venue, as it is a project by Solidere, which has previously been accused of misrepresenting the reconstruction of Beirut. Some critics were also unenthused by the roster of artists and wanting for more resounding names. Nevertheless, for having been put together with no production budget for the artists, the show is receiving critical acclaim. Whether that is grounded on Beirut’s craving for solid thematic shows or the quality of the art presented is beside the point; what is important is the that show was well received to the extent that it was extended until July 31. The point is that the show could see the possibility of traveling to another foreign venue. “Rebirth” is undoubtedly proof that Lebanon’s art scene is very much active despite the virtually dead support from the state.