Abdul Rahman Katanani plays with sombre themes. His latest exhibition, Brainstorm, confronts viewers with bleak realities and waves of change on a monumental scale, advocating resilience and contemplating hopeful futures. It’s a project of particular relevance today, especially considering the current protests in Lebanon and widespread unrest throughout the Middle East.
By upcycling and sculpting material found in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, Katanani transmutes banal items into art loaded with significance. His wall sculptures made of corrugated cardboard, depicting “shadow children,” put the spotlight on those who grow up on the outskirts of society and without much of a future, followed by the ghosts of war. Then, a series of portraits, cut out from the top of oil barrels, display the effigies of political figures whose destiny is entangled with that of oil trade in the Arab world. The silhouettes point to the complexities of the history and business of oil, pointing out their repercussions on the daily life of Middle Easterners, many of whom dwell in misery despite their countries’ vast natural resources.
The crux of the show consists of a recreation of a refugee camp, built out of colourful metal sheets, many of them bearing the logos and shipping labels of international corporations. Despite their cheerful hues, the narrow alleyways feel claustrophobic. All doors and windows are closed, and behind them reside the victims of global capitalism, as the Palestinian artist transcends the condition of his fellow refugees to speak for the underprivileged everywhere. At the turn of a street corner, one suddenly walks down a narrow alleyway curiously lined up with mirrors on both sides. While mirrors are usually meant to expand space, here the multiplication of one’s reflection adds to the asphyxiating, prison-like feel of the camp and underscores the physical closeness of its inhabitants.
Brainstorm finds its momentous coda with a monumental barbed wire wave, symbolising the collective will for change after decades of hardship, and for a halt to the excess of violence everywhere. It could wash away oppression, carrying with it the demands of a popular revolution, perhaps one already underway in the Middle East. But the tidal wave also intimates dangers that could engulf all, as our already precarious condition could be entirely wiped out under the weight of religion or politics. It is often said that artists have something of the visionary, and one hopes Katanani’s premonitory tidal wave confirms the adage for the better.