Saleh Barakat Gallery is full of bombs. For six weeks, 47 shells, of the type used frequently during bombardments in the Lebanese Civil War, are displayed on ammunition chests under the gallery’s bright lights. None of them are deadly, however. Perpetual Identities by Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi explores themes of conflict, culture, peace and identity through sculptures modelled on the shape of shells, each based on the indigenous culture and history of a different country.

She first began working on the project three and a half years ago, after spending time thinking about the destructive and deadly war in Syria and how it mirrored the war that formed the background to her own childhood and teenage years in Lebanon.

“As I always say, the inspiration is divine. I don’t know where it comes from. I think it’s when you are connected in a moment between the sky and the earth and you just align with something and then you have a vision,” she says. “Being an expressionist artist, my imagination is very fertile. [My art] is always a translation of what I live, what I see, what I think, how I perceive situations around me.”

Traboulsi has crafted two sculptures to represent Lebanon, torn by the difficulty of trying to convey the identity of a complex and cosmopolitan country still riven by divisions. The first piece is carved from cedar wood and captures Phoenician men rowing their boats, symbolising Lebanon’s ancient civilization and its long history of travel and trade. The second is covered with a collage made up of the logos of the country’s 18 different political parties.

Through these two works, she encapsulates the message of the exhibition, which aims to celebrate beauty and unity, showing how culture can be used to celebrate individuality, as well as highlighting the destructive power of identity when it is used as a concept to pit people against each other. “I am the voice of all of us, as much as I can be. I’m trying to say we are all one. We need peace. We need love. We need to accept the idea of the other,” she says.

Traboulsi working with local artisans to produce pieces in keeping with the traditions of each of the 45 foreign countries. Each country is represented by an aspect of its culture that remains integral to its contemporary identity. The Turkish piece, for example, is covered with traditional painted Iznik designs, combining Ottoman and Chinese elements, while the Saudi Arabian sculpture is hand-carved from pure white marble with floral designs inspired by the Kaaba Minbar. Morocco is represented by a delicate latticework of brass evoking traditional lanterns and Mexico is exemplified by a painted wooden totem of a figure based on ancient Mayan art.

“I hope this project will speak in other countries, because it deserves to travel and speak out loud about how united we are,” says Traboulsi. “I believe that as an artist I have a mission in my work to give a certain message. I am the witness of my time and this is what I’m going to leave behind.”

Perpetual Identities continues at Saleh Barakat Gallery until April 24.

by Irene McConnell

Featured image: Afghanistan, 2016-Hand carved and painted resin, Palestine, 2016-Brass, UAE, 2016- Hand nailed and painted wood, Iran, 2016-Hand painted wood, Austria, 2016-Hand painted resin and brass leaves, Spain, 2016- Hand carved leather on wood.