Writer and critic Arie Amaya-Akkermans, based in Istanbul, has spent the most part of the past decade working in the Middle East, including Istanbul and Beirut; he spoke to Selections about his plans to open up an artistic dialogue between both cities.
How did your connection to Beirut develop?
In a way, I’ve always been connected – it began with a search for family roots in the Ottoman Levant which led back to Beirut, and I remember standing on the hills of Rabiyeh years ago and overlooking the whole of Beirut and thinking, I’m home. But as a Colombian, who lived through the violence of the 1980s and 1990s (Lebanon and Colombia were the darlings of the New York Times front page in this period) I understand very well home is a very fragile concept, it can break, it can change. The experience of displacement for Colombians of my generation was very strong, so I could easily identify with Lebanese who had to reinvent themselves constantly to fit in their own changing world. But more concretely speaking, it began with my work as a journalist in the region at the beginning of the previous decade, covering heritage and culture, including archaeological destruction.
I became obsessed with Beirut, and when a research center at Bard College invited me to publish work on urbanism in Beirut I jumped at the opportunity. Over time, while writing for an Egyptian publication, now extinct, about regional cinema, I came across Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s film “A Perfect Day” and it changed everything. I opened my eyes to contemporary art, and I can’t even begin to describe how fast that decade passed. But of course my own perspective has changed many times; from someone who worked for art galleries and who covered art fairs once, now I’m more interested in archaeology and the construction of historical narratives, and consider myself primarily a researcher. I do not really use the word curator which I associate with certain discourse and practices I have little interest in. But in all of this Beirut has always been one of the central places in my work.
You have worked both in Beirut and Istanbul over the past decade, mainly as a critic but also as an independent curator and gallery staff, where do you see an artistic dialogue taking place between these cities and how do you aim to develop it?
It’s strange that we begin talking about this only now, in the middle of tremendous catastrophes (Turkey isn’t exactly going through a good moment), but the situation in Lebanon has caused a new wave of migration to Turkey of young Lebanese, and so it feels like the right moment for this difficult conversation. An artist told me recently, it’s like a silent family table. Both Lebanese and Turks have ignored each other quite willingly for an entire century, even though they share a history, mostly tragic, and their fates cannot be separated. In the art world, although Turkish artists have been to Ashkal Alwan over the last decade, and many Turkish and Lebanese artists have met each other in Europe, the exchange is next to nonexistent. But this absence is not accidental, in fact it tells you so much about the cultural landscape of the region today, and the adolescent Eurocentrism that still dominates contemporary art.
Among my plans for a future dialogue there is an exhibition in Istanbul about architecture in Beirut, which is planned for 2021 already. I’m unsure whether I intend to remain in Istanbul permanently (there’s such a thing as big city fatigue), and while I’m tempted to travel to Beirut for research, we know it’s not a good moment to make big plans there. But over the course of the next few years, I would like to develop things both smaller and larger than exhibitions: Publications, public art projects and perhaps an inter-city research collaboration that would comprise Beirut, Izmir and Athens. We don’t know if the world is going to fail us and when, but we need to have big dreams right now, because the alternative of sitting at home, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the pandemic to end is wishful thinking and must be left to the hopeless.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibition in Istanbul about architecture in Beirut. Do you plan to address the topics around this last year of rapid changes, upheaval and crises going on in Lebanon now?
I think this exhibition will deal more with poetry than with research, because we are at a time in which not only we need some kind of hope, but also theory isn’t making sense, the world is changing, we can find no place in reality and it’s difficult to articulate with precision what we are living through. I also believe strongly that contemporary art isn’t supposed to be merely information – many contemporary exhibitions insult the audience’s intelligence by assuming this. Art can be so much more. So it’s not that we’re trying to escape from reality (this would be idiotic, everything is falling on our heads already), but rather to create spaces where we can take a long, slow gaze at our own history, at our situation, at our lives, and not be consumed by the background noise. The topic of the exhibition is the architectural fragment, and is inspired by fragments from a lost work of Greek tragedian Aeschylus.
The idea of the fragments from a lost something I think speaks very close to the heart of Beirut; we always see those images of destruction, but they’re always fragments, fragments of other fragments; we can never really visualise the whole thing, it’s too terrifying and confusing because it’s also mixed with beauty, with life, with rebirth. The fragment is a paradox: There’s this desire to restore the fragment (like the traditional houses of Gemmayze) but it’s this destruction what brought the fragment into full view in the first place. It would be foolish to try and address all the rapid changes of the here-and-now, we’re still living through them, and exhibitions dealing with the present, for example the October revolution, are usually not that interesting. I want us to look at a longer span of time, I would say from the 1990s onwards, but no full comprehensive view, because that would mean I have some answers, and I really don’t.
The exhibition began with a dialogue between the works of Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Gregory Buchakjian and Turkish artist Hale Tenger (from a piece she made in and about Beirut some 15 years ago, now in the Saradar Collection), but while this three-part conversation would make perfect sense in Beirut, it’s too hermetic for Turkey where Joana and Khalil and Gregory have never been exhibited. So I’m looking into the works of younger Turkish and Lebanese artists, since I want this to be a real conversation and not a Lebanese monologue. I am trying to go all the way, by commissioning work from artists as diverse as the glass artist Felekşan Onar, who’s very familiar with Beirut through Ottoman family history, or Kanat Akar, a young video artist, whose first Turkish solo I curated in 2019. The ADAS space in Istanbul where we’re planning to make the exhibition has a particular interest in architecture and design, so it seems to me like a good place for something which is both spontaneous (the exhibition is slated for April) but comprising nearly a decade of conversations between us.
Now you’re based in Istanbul. What artists from Turkey would you like to present one day in Beirut and what do you think they can add to the conversation?
I would love to show the work of Hera Büyüktaşçıyan because in a way it makes more sense in Beirut than in Istanbul; the narratives of exile and return, deep memory, plurality and complexity, and the history of minorities in the region. As a Greek-Armenian from Turkey, her work is embedded with the hidden layers of the region’s history, and since Lebanon is a patchwork of these fragments, it would speak to people’s hearts immediately. Additionally the history of Greeks and Armenians in Lebanon hasn’t been told much because they were in principle so well integrated, but I think there was also a lot of trauma involved, and it would be interesting to open up these layers, especially if someone from the outside is doing it, and this someone has a sharp eye for palimpsestic memory. I find it almost hard to believe it that Hera hasn’t been to Beirut yet, so I hope that the day will come.
There’re two young painters as well, Burak Ata and Sabo Akdağ whose work I would show in Lebanon because it’s so sentimental and yet casual. They create elaborate narratives simply from being curious about life, and these narratives become so personal, it’s impossible not to be moved. Their work is unique also in the Turkish context where painting is usually along the Lebanese pattern: Tired abstraction, grand historical narratives or commercial landscaping. In a way, we have forgotten how beautiful and touching painting can be, and I think in a moment like this, we need this kind of artists, who can remind us that art is mostly about the basic questions of life, and not about some technicalities of art theory and curatorial discourse. But the coming of Turkish artists to Beirut will have to wait.
To conclude, what can contemporary art tell us in Lebanon during a time of pandemic and deep crisis?
I think I would like to turn that question around. Without Lebanon, I think contemporary art wouldn’t have said much to me. Three years ago I sat for coffee in Paris with Sandra Dagher, who confessed to me that if it wasn’t for the situation in Lebanon, she would have never been interested in contemporary art. And I felt I was understood at that moment; the interest was born out of something purely existential, the need to understand what you’re seeing in the street there, it’s not something remote or highly abstract. Going back to “A Perfect Day”, there’s this haunting and delicate scene, when Malek drives around the streets of Beirut, in such despair, in pursuit of his girlfriend, to the sounds of Soap Kills’ Enta Fen, while his mother waits at home for the husband that never returned from the war. I think this moment captured the feeling of Beirut much better than any war image. It was mesmerising.
In 2012 when I interviewed Yasmine Hamdan, she answered one of my questions with: “What are we here for? We don’t know what we’re doing here in this life. Music gave me a lot of sense and courage.” This is exactly the way I feel about contemporary art today, and even while I’m a tireless skeptic and have never been at home in the art world, I feel as if I’ve never truly had any other home, and whenever the world, reality – and theory – fail on us, and they do constantly, contemporary art allows us to really look up and think, wow, things are really complicated, in a more efficient way than theory, because there’s no escape from the gaze of the image. In my years long correspondence with Gregory Buchakjian, I am always going back to this point: I’m keeping myself so busy with art, with projects, with ideas, because if we stop for a second to digest what’s happening around us, I think we would fall apart.