Curator Bruno Corà reflects on the importance of a collaboration between Lebanese contemporary artists Ayman Baalbaki and Jean Boghossian, who met in Brussels to work together on a series of paintings

Following the large retrospective of Jean Boghossian’s work at the Beirut Exhibition Center last December and January, a meeting between the artist and Lebanese painter and installation artist Ayman Baalbaki led to a revealing dialogue that eventually resulted in creative collaboration. The two artists decided to work together on several paintings at Boghossian’s studio in Brussels, driven by their desire to share their respective artistic experiences, explore their mutual affinity and reflect on their shared relationship with life in Beirut and Lebanon’s turbulent history.

The collaboration revealed the mutual respect between the two artists, and also highlighted the attention that each of them brings to his respective artistic language, although they are very different.

“It’s the first time that I’ve made a work with ‘four hands,’ and it is a nice opportunity to do it with Ayman,” explained Boghossian. “The first day, we thought that we were proceeding in different directions, but the second and third day, we started to get into each other’s work, to try to create a common project and to get to a certain point where we could meet.”

Baalbaki elaborated on Boghossian’s recollections. “The difference that sets us apart in the course of our work is the distance that each of us take from it, but I realised that we have the same speed of execution.”

In fact, what unites the two artists is belonging to a part of the world — Lebanon — in which artistic language becomes a very effective means of interpreting reality. In this regard, Boghossian shares something of the distinctive effect that characterises Baalbaki’s work.

“What I appreciate about him is the commitment of his position, which is not only personal but also political, precisely that which differentiates us,” Boghossian said. “For me, art is a way to search and express myself but not necessarily to adopt a political position.”

These differences, although acknowledged by both artists, did not prevent them from achieving a fruitful collaboration. The result is several large canvases, in which the use of abstraction and certain technical processes can be attributed to Boghossian, while particular uses of iconography and painterly gestures reveal Baalbaki’s input.

While Boghossian chooses to express himself through abstraction, making use of fire and smoke to create a composition determined by its sharpness and colour on the canvas, Baalbaki traces profiles of ruined buildings, evoking the destruction of war and the archetypical Tower of Babel. The thickness of the paint betrays the number of layers painted one atop the other, revealing the formative process of the work. While this practice of overpainting is customary for Baalbaki during the application of colour, Boghossian works in a more unforgiving medium — the traces of flame do not allow for second chances, because they irreversibly alter the surface of the canvas.

Following the week they spent together in Brussels, the artists sat down to reflect together on the experience of painting with four hands, instead of two. The two artists ended up sharing their views on the international cultural situation in relation to globalisation, the problem of rampant violence around the world and other issues relating to history and current events.

They discovered that through their time working together, they had learned to read each other’s artistic language and recognise the character behind it.

“I try to find a relationship between painting and installation because both have contributed to my education,” explained Baalbaki, specifying that his use of pre-printed images as aids in his painting should not be interpreted in a didactic way, as in the case of floral fabrics, which are often considered to be emblems contrasting the sorrow of war with the joy of being alive.

Boghossian reiterated that he uses flame as an artistic medium, rather than to express violence. He added that his artistic process consists of searching, though in truth he does not really hope to find, because finding in this instance is synonymous with stopping.

The paintings executed by the artists together show that the blending of their two distinct technical approaches has proved highly successful. In paintings started by Boghossian’s fire, the pictorial elements added by Baalbaki successfully integrated the surfaces left intact, and vice versa. There are several examples of paintings begun by Baalbaki, bearing the image of buildings in a state of collapse or clouds of ether enveloping the tower of Babel, which have been successfully finished by Boghossian through a literal baptism of fire.

It was not the first time that I had been asked to observe and accompany two artists in a shared encounter such as this. I witnessed a similar collaboration between Sol LeWitt and Mimmo Paladino a few years ago in Italy, for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of Rome, but in that instance each had worked on half of a series of transparent sheet paper, never invading the other’s territory. This time, with Boghossian and Baalbaki, such limits have been successfully bypassed.

This experience in Brussels marks a significant encounter between the two Lebanese contemporary artists, who were able to overcome their differences, making for a dynamic and fruitful collaboration and resulting in a series of works that will be discussed for a long time to come in Beirut, and wherever art still poses questions.

By Bruno Corà