A NEW LEGACY FROM THE LAND
I AM THE SECOND GENERATION OF THE BASBOUS FAMILY OF SCULPTORS. MY FATHER, MICHEL BASBOUS, WAS THE FIRST TO BEGIN SCULPTING IN THE FAMILY AND HE WAS AMONG THE FIRST ARTISTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST TO PRACTICE MODERN SCULPTURE.
Indeed, he introduced the region to this genre, thanks to his talent and his dedication to his work. Michel Basbous was born in 1921 in the village of Rachana. His father, my grandfather, was a priest. As Michel was his eldest child he would accompany and assist him in his work. My father said that the first sculptural shapes he saw were at church. This scene from his childhood of melted candles at the church altar influenced his work. My father used to collect these vertical wax forms caused by melting – each one unique – and study them. He later became known for his obelisk and vertical works that always pointed skywards. I imagine these wax candle forms from his childhood played a role in the spirituality that we see in his work. In my father’s journal he once wrote: “I was born a sculptor”. In reality, he began sculpting from the age of 14. He became one of the first students to enroll at the newly founded Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA) in 1945 and one of its first graduates.
Later, in the early 1950s, he went to Europe, and experienced the sculptural renaissance there, when modern sculpture was at its height. He went to Paris, where he joined the atelier of Zadkine. During his time in the city, he observed and learned a lot. This can be seen in his work, which has a richness in culture and components of different civilisations. His openness to the West and his travels there allowed him to add value to the sculptural world in Lebanon and the region after his return to Rachana.
My father’s oeuvre encompassed classical and modern works, sculpture as well as drawings. He even designed and built a foundry next to our family home in 1976 with the help of his brothers. Although it was only active as a foundry for a short time and later became used as both a home and atelier by family members. He never settled when it came to knowledge; he was a constant researcher. Even though he succeeded in every step he took, whether in terms of fame, art, or sales, he wouldn’t stick to a certain trajectory in order to gain success. He was adventurous, always trying new things. Not a lot of artists would do that. He used to say that every time his work became popular and suited people’s tastes, he would switch to another style.
This required confidence. That’s why I say he is one of the most confident artists that I have ever known. He gave his drawings great importance. He wrote in his journal that one day the world would consider him as a great artist in the same way it considered him a great sculptor.
Towards the end of his life, he asked my mother to collect all the drawings that he had made since his stay in Paris until the year 1981, spanning a period of 30 years, so he could add his signature to them. He tried to remember the year of each work and added it if he could. I was around 12 years old back then. It is strange how you tend to forget a lot of incidents, but some memories stick with you. To me, as a child, this incident was so symbolic and important. It appeared to me as if he was signing his farewell.
He gave his drawings great importance. He wrote in his journal that one day the world would consider him as a great artist in the same way it considered him a great sculptor.
Some of the best memories I have of my father are those from when I was working with him. In the late 1970s, when he was working on a bronze exhibition, he discovered polystyrene, which is easy to work with. He bought me a small hot wire to cut with and gave me the freedom to work however I wanted. I made a piece that he liked and cast it in aluminum. I still have it as it has a special significance. I felt then that I was an equal to my father, as my work appeared alongside the ones he was working on, and I still remember the date and the reaction that I had.
My father was kind, generous, and had huge confidence in himself and his work. This was one of the reasons people loved him. When he experienced success in his work, he asked his brothers to help out, but when he discovered that they were also talented, he encouraged them to work on their own ideas and technical skills so that they would have their own independent art. Similarly, he encouraged Boulos Richa, a blacksmith in Batroun who used to execute his sculptures. Once my father saw his work and found that he had a vision and was good at what he did, he helped him to become a sculptor. He encouraged many others as well.
Our village of Rachana was also an inspiration for many; Mona Saudi found her passion and love for sculpting there. Rachana’s prominence arose out a decision that my father took when he came back from Paris. He had a symposium in Zahrat El-Ihsan in Achrafieh and invited the audience and people who loved him to come over to his village, where he decided to do an open-air exhibition.
From there he started adding his sculptures, not only on paved roads but everywhere in the village. Although I knew Michel Basbous as my father, it was following his death in 1981 that his friends and brothers added to my knowledge about him. In particular, my mother continued providing the missing pieces that helped me know him better.
When your memories are connected to good and trustful information shared with you, they become the truth. She helped me to understand my roots, which are also his roots, and understand him in a poetic way. My mother used to worship him: he was a demi-god for a huge period of my life. My mother created the Michel Basbous Foundation. Today, my wife works at the foundation with me. We have around 1,200 works ranging from sketches to four-metre-high sculptures. Everything is photographed and archived. I got to know my father through his work and through my mother. This acts as a filter: the most important things about my father are his creativity, his love for work and for beauty, which for me is the main constituent of art, even though artists are shy to talk about beauty nowadays. In 1981 at the time of my father’s death I was 12 years old.
My mother took on the role of both parents. I was an only child, so she had a huge impact on my work and my life: who I am today, what I create and my artistic life. She used to grab me by the hand and take me to Beirut to see exhibitions and gave me so many books to read when I was a teenager. My father’s library is still at home and is rich in books. Before the days of the Internet, when books were the main intellectual tool, this is how I learned about the major artists who influenced my life, such as Arnaldo Pomodoro, César Baldaccini and Louise Nevelson, to name just a few. This helped me become more aware of the world, what other artists were doing, and to consider what direction I should take and even discover myself.
My mother was a poet not only in terms of the books she published but with respect to her daily language and her passion for the sun, sea, and colours.
I lost my mother two years ago, but I discovered her more in these two years than throughout the past 50 years. This is strange, but it’s because there are no more silly daily interactions or ego issues that distort your vision. You begin to discover more because the memory becomes clear; it gets rid of bad memories, leaving you with the golden ones that
sculpted your personality.
I ALWAYS SAY THAT MY LIFE IS DIVIDED INTO TWO HALVES: ONE THAT BELONGS TO MY WORK AND THE OTHER TO MY FATHER’S. I AM WORKING ON HIS LEGACY BUT ALSO CREATING MY OWN.
I am working on his legacy but also creating my own. The potency of both is so high that sometimes both fail. Because I gave a lot of time to my father’s foundation in the past, I have decided that now it is time to focus on my own work.
The foundation and my father’s works will always be here, but what I am creating now cannot be replaced. My current project is in the village of Rachana, where I live with my wife Elma and two children Shana and Michel. There are three important stages in Rachana’s cultural importance that predate my own current project. The first is when the village was part of the cultural movement of the early 1960s and when it reached its peak fame, becoming a hub for the local and international jet-set. Antoine Moultaka had seen the potential of staging a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth among my father’s haunting sculptures. Other performances followed in its wake, including international productions from France and Italy, among them Seven Against Thebes directed by Jack Lang, who later became France’s minister of culture. These were years when there were festivals in both Baalbeck and Rachana. By the end of 1964 my father felt that this project of Rachana Festival that he presided over was occupying time that should be dedicated to his creativity instead, so he decided to put the project on hold. From that time onward his sole interest was sculpture. Later, in 1994, Michel’s brother Alfred launched an international sculpture symposium with the help of the family. This was the first of its kind in the Arab world.
We invited sculptors from various countries to work on sculptures that they would leave in Rachana. Alfred organised this event every year until 2005. Then, four years ago, I started something called Land Art in Rachana. Once again, this was a first in the Arab world, and I organised it in partnership with universities. Land art involves artists going to a space in nature and creating work from the material that can be found on site. ALBA students made an installation from tree leaves, while LAU students found a wheel of a truck and used it in their work. I did this once and it was a nice experience; however, for the same reason as my father gave before me, I had to put it on hold. I was born in a garden of sculptures – there are many at home that are older than me. However, I had been wanting to physically separate my work from my father’s, so for two years now I have been working on my own project. The architect is my friend, Jawdat Arnouk, with whom we created a team to work on the concept. I had a piece of land in a strategic location, on which we designed a building with terraces and landscaping.
The building is constructed from concrete, implanted in the ground and directed towards the sea. We live in a village that has architectural and geographic traditions. For example, people choose a place where to deposit and pile up stones and call it a “rejmeh”. There would be a threshing floor (“baydar”) on it and the “baysa” is the place where wheat and oat are separated in the open air, as this area is well known for its winds. So, I converted this “rejmeh” into a showpiece. I initially thought about having green plants around it, but I changed my mind as this area was originally built from rocks and I decided to keep them as the main component of my landscaping. I sculpted them so they turned into a huge piece of architecture that welcomes different-sized sculptures. I decided to have the garden and the inner hall connected visually so that the inside view would become the outside and vice versa. Even the roof is a place to exhibit, with sculptures placed there.
On the roof, the connection to the universe of Rachana would be heightened. The five elements of Nature fire, water, space, earth and air are all present in this construction.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #60 BEING ANACHAR BASBOUS