The Lebanese capital’s artistic highlights during spring
As the wet and windy winter begins to give way to spring, so does Beirut’s varied and vibrant art scene begin to warm up once again. This season offers a diverse mix of painters, sculptors, photographers and provocateurs, many of whom are exhibiting exciting new works throughout the next few months.
At the Saleh Barakat Gallery in Clemenceau, Afaf Zurayk’s retrospective exhibition Return Journeys introduces us to the very heart of her life in art, through a selection of works created across a storied career spanning more than three decades. “I dedicated myself to painting professionally when I was 28 years old, during the Civil War in Lebanon,” says the Beirut-born painter, reflecting on her beginnings as a professional artist. “Concentrating on my art helped me come to terms with all that was happening around me and enabled me to translate my feelings into images.”
Utilising a variety of media, cycles, stages and themes, Return Journeys reveals paintings that are at the same time thought-provoking and heartfelt, contrasting the raw impact of their power against a delicate, almost spiritual quality. Her use of black ink and heavy charcoal throughout her pieces serves to emphasise the fundamental concept of the experience of loss. “To me,” Zurayk explains, “black represents pain; it has a depth, the nuances of which reflect the fluctuating gradations of emotional experience. Acting as both a shield and a bridge, black protects the inner world while simultaneously connecting it to the external one. In that sense black does not cover, but instead exposes.” The exhibition is definitely worth the time of any follower of Zurayk’s work. Alternatively, for those who are not familiar, this is the perfect place to start.
Meanwhile, in Hamra, Agial Art Gallery presents another of Beirut’s native artists, Rima Amyuni. Her latest series of works in Two In One continue the theme from her previous exhibition, Paradis Fleuris, of pastoral, mountainous landscapes. The subject of Amyuni’s work is inspired by the artist’s immediate surroundings – her home, studio and garden in the Lebanese town of Yarzé – but also reflects a state of mind rather than just one particular place. Through the bright colours of her oils and acrylics, Amyuni’s Yarzé appears as an idyllic, peaceful place, quite distanced from the pressures and anxiousness of the modern urban existence so many of us now live.
Elsewhere in Hamra, Letitia Gallery offers Over, Through and Around, an exhibition of new work by Omani artist Radhika Khimji, who employs a collaged approach to the creation of both her art pieces and her installations. Khimji’s works are composed of varying layers, encompassing various types of media, including photo-transfer, painting, repetitive mark-making, and even knitting – a new discipline for the artist – as well as her signature embellishment of drawing implements used to pierce through the surfaces of her works, here most commonly represented by an embroidering of red thread.
“I have developed a way of working informed by the physicality and materiality of the making process to deconstruct, evade and erase constructions of formulated identities,” says Khimji. “I question categorisation and often play with terms and the naming of things to generate a new narrative for an object and render it abstract from its loaded history.” With a deliberately constrained, yet highly evocative visual vocabulary, Khimji invites the viewer to share in new experiences.
Over in Mar Mikhael, a decidedly more irreverent show, artist and satirist Adel Abidin’s exhibits Ya! at Galerie Tanit. His work examines the complicated interplay between identity, politics and visual arts in this era of idealisation, political incorrectness and the erasure values of history and humanity itself. “Using a sharp palette of irony and humour, I find myself gravitating towards different social situations dealing with elusive experiences and cultural alienation,” says Abidin. “This sarcasm I use is nothing but a medium of provocation to serve the purpose of extending the mental borders of the artwork beyond the limits of the exhibition space.”
This sentiment is most strikingly embodied in Abidin’s most recent work, a collection of representations of the 10 Imams of Iran. Each image features metallic cut-outs symbolising the iconic elements of each Imam’s life, yet none of them contain a true representation of the faces of Imams themselves. Instead, all 12 representations show the same model, surreptitiously removing the genuine human element from these now hollow idols.
The Iraqi-Finnish artist’s other projects are no less provocative. We Came To Kill Your Father hangs on a wall, a terrifying statement from the 1918 Finnish Civil War, no less relevant in today’s Arab World, emblazoned in bright neon. Meanwhile, History Wipes – a video piece – puts forth a clear statement on the subject of media control and altered perception, with the spectator given instructions to change, erase and choose the historical events that they wish to retain or discard. All pose questions, leaving it to the viewer to find answers.
Art On 56th, based in Gemmayze, plays host to Carla Barchini’s new exhibition Beirut ∞, which delves into Beirut’s tumultuous history of conflict, diaspora and restoration, encapsulating the ever-changing face of Lebanon’s enduring capital city. Her second solo show at Art On 56th, this exhibition is a tribute to her beloved homeland, in which she draws upon the association between Beirut and the legendary phoenix, both having undergone cycles of destruction and resurrection seven times. The title of her exhibition reflects this notion prominently, with the number eight placed horizontally to become a symbol of infinity – the cycle has become an integral part of the city’s identity.
As Barchini explains, “This eighth city, Beirut ∞, is the one I got to know the best, it is a place I discovered little by little, but which exposed me all at once. In eternal transformation, a city of contrast by excellence, chaos is inherent to its creativity, and without knowing it, Beirut constantly creates works of art: it is enough to look around to capture its ephemeral beauty.” Barchini’s works, from her paintings to her sculpture pieces, celebrate the resilience of Beirut, paying tribute to its indomitable spirit in her use of bold colours. Yet there is also melancholy. The hallmarks of damage and decay are present throughout, alluding to the old scars and bullet holes one can still see in the streets of Gemmayze to this day.
Meanwhile, in the Port District, Marfa Projects has been showcasing Of All That Is Seen And Unseen, an exhibition by Vartan Avakian examining printed books as sculptural objects of multiple layers of inscription, symbolising history and embodying the weight of authority and culture. There are also stains and scratches that leave both perceptible and imperceptible traces, waiting to be uncovered, deciphered and perceived. For “All That Is Seen And Unseen,” Avakian has crafted a series of procedures, creating a process by which he is able to expose otherwise hidden layers of incidental inscriptions and markings. Some of these layers are revealed like images as light interacts with oils and salts, while others are separated from the book object to be transposed into their own sculptural artefacts.
Avakian’s accompanying installation, Composition With A Recurring Sound, puts the sounds of a river through several sculptural pieces. The sculptures capture the movements of water, life, industrial waste and other pollutants formed in its environmental surroundings, the sound waves resonating through the materials.
Sfeir-Semler Gallery has two exhibitions running in tandem at present, firstly Timo Nasseri’s new solo show, presenting new works in A Universal Alphabet, and secondly a joint project from renowned Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger, Les Extrémités De Notre Univers. Nasseri’s latest project is based upon the patterns of Razzle Dazzle, a peculiar form of ship camouflage used primarily during the World War I to prevent enemies from determining the exact position or course of a vessel, consisting of irregular geometrical shapes painted in contrasting colours. Nasseri has chosen to reduce these fascinating patterns to their most basic components. In doing so, he unveils primal forms that echo those found in primitive cultures from Africa, Asia and Latin America, revealing a continuum of forms used across the world since pre-history, all the way through to the turn of the 20th century, to be found upon the European warships.
Experimenting with various media, including sculptures and metal shapes, Nasseri unravels the universal presence of these patterns within our collective psyche. The warships themselves – painted on three-meter-high canvases in mirrored profiles, as one might see when reflected in the water – become giant primeval totems, illustrating the timelessness of these forms.
Meanwhile, Steiner and Lenzlinger blur the lines between fantasy and reality, using both refuse and plants – collected during their visit to Lebanon – to create a space that is at once natural and vital, yet also artificial and disquieting. Around the gallery and on the beaches of Beirut, the artists found no shortage of rubbish to incorporate into their works. This is then contrasted against the carefully selected plants, giving voice to the unheeded concerns of ecological causes in Lebanon. A collection of seeds is present, gathered from Terbol by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Arid Areas (ICARDA). The Bisri Valley and the dam project there were also a source of inspiration for the artists.
The installations are thus physical manifestations of a contradictory truth. The surreal fantasy that Steiner and Lenzlinger have manufactured invites the viewer on a journey into the artificial sublime; an unnatural, unreal place that nonetheless continues to grow and change as the exhibition progresses, signifying the persistence of nature despite manmade interference.
Currently showing at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche, Lara Tabet’s Underbelly is a photography exhibition that follows the trail of a fictional serial killer at large in Beirut, inspired by Roberto Bolaño’s novel, 2666. Tabet ventures out to the fringes of the city to create a dark portrait of Beirut at night through an imagined sequence of unsolved murders.
Although photography is her medium, Tabet uses her discipline as a form of transgressive performance. While trespassing in order to take these photographs, the artist and her models were frequently stopped and questioned by both the police and local security forces. In her exploration of boundaries and spaces away from the beaten path, and in choosing to depict dead women, she turns a critical feminist gaze upon representations of violent, sexualised acts against the victims her work portrays. Her subjects are provocative yet tragic, clinically stripped down by the cold, dispassionate analysis of a forensic image.
Taken with a large format camera, Tabet’s tableau photographs show haunting crime scenes in which her models lie barely noticeable amongst the dramatic shadows of her desolate, urban environments. The corpses of these dead women are scattered around town, hidden at the margins where the streetlights and the city guards remain sparse. They are discovered by the viewer at the thresholds between what is familiar and what is secret, yet to be found amidst the distracting, indifferent sprawl of an ever-expanding cityscape.
For those who follow Ayla Hibri’s work, A Palm Tree Bows to the Moon – shown at Abroyan Factory in Burj Hammoud – is something of a departure from her previous projects. After photographing subjects in locations from Brazil to Yemen, Hibri presents pieces for this new show that are distinctly closer to home, all taken in Lebanon and shot in stark black-and-white. There is a sense of voyeuristic curiosity about these images, a desire to uncover the familiar in the otherwise foreign, contrasted by the unnerving feeling of things being out of place.
Hibri describes the show as a summary of her book of the same name, also launched at the exhibition’s opening. The book features around 70 different images in total, along with original accompanying texts, written by the artist. However, she has avoided titling the images themselves, in either the show or the book, so as not to curtail the interpretations of those viewing her work. The texts in the book are poetic and insightful, offering an additional layer to be considered as part of the broader experience.
As always, Sursock Museum continues to host interesting new projects, such as the excellent Correspondence(s) and the fascinating La Fabrique Des Illusions. A conjoint effort between mother-and-son duo Laure Ghorayeb and Mazen Kerbaj, Correspondance(s) presents a series of works in their unique style. The pair’s overlapping, yet highly distinct practices – combining Ghorayeb’s intricate detailing with Kerbaj’s wild caricatures, embellished by technical pens, India ink and the written word – has allowed them to create art in tandem for more than a decade, and their close personal and artistic relationship is on full display in this exhibition.
Moving from pages torn from old sketchbooks and scraps of paper to larger canvasses, the installations show the evolution of the pair’s collaborative, yet also charmingly competitive style. Ghorayeb and Kerbaj endlessly run over each other’s drawings and writings, playfully challenging each other. There is a shared passion to their work, giving the viewer a glimpse into the chaotic dynamics of their artistry.
La Fabrique Des Illusions, curated by François Cheval and Yasmine Chemali, brings together images from the Fouad Debbas Collection – the world’s largest private collection of postcards and old photographs of Lebanon and the Middle East – as well as works by 10 contemporary artists, to explore the dichotomy between photorealism and the artificial image. Featuring artists like Nadim Asfar, Mac Adams, Daniele Genadry and Wiktoria Wojciechowska, this exhibition presents the viewer with an eclectic variety of pictures, recordings, videos and sculptures, some fantastical and bizarre, others more grounded and granular. In the contrast between these modern interpretations of and responses to photography with the historical examples of the Fouad Debbas Collection, one witnesses the changing nature of photography throughout the medium’s history. It raises questions of authenticity, integrity and perspective, encouraging viewers to take an active, critical stance when considering representation versus reinterpretation.