By Nayla Tamraz
I have known Ayman for several years. It was 2004 or 2005 when we met. He had just exhibited this incredible car, topped with mattresses and backpacks, at the Beirut Theatre, revealing his playful side: Ayman likes really, above all, to have fun with what he does. He also painted at this time his mysterious Babel towers, deserted and hollowed out like the termite mounds he had seen during a trip to Africa. His rebellious and joker side, alongside his seriousness when it came to talking about painting, was interesting. Listening to him is always a pleasure. It was obvious that the act of painting, in Ayman’s work, was to become the subject of a narrative.
I then had the opportunity to write several texts for Ayman and, more recently, I also collaborated on the catalogue of the Lebanese pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale by writing a text on his work. From being a writer on Ayman, I therefore became his historian, trying to bring order to this extraordinary nebula that is his work. Thus, I can say that I have never really stopped discovering and exploring this immense material, to the point of extracting elements that are sometimes unknown, but never trivial.
I would like to talk about Ayman Baalbaki by going back to a stage that clearly founded his life as an artist. Alongside his university education, in Lebanon and then in Paris, Ayman participated in the Summer Academy of Darat el Founoun in Jordan (2000-2001), held at the time by the painter Marwan Kassab Bachi. There, he had to deal with authentic questions: Why be an artist? What does it mean to be an artist? What forms an artist’s identity? Which tool, material and medium to choose? This step seems important to me, definitely because Ayman has never stopped asking himself these fundamental questions that continue to nourish him.
Also, under Marwan’s supervision, Ayman’s work developed into a dialogue with the pictorial tradition. With him he undertook the painting of his very well-known Sides of beef, as well as an astonishing work, little-known beyond a few insiders, of a series of crosses inspired both by the tortured crucifixions of the painter Antonio Saura and by the story of the mystical poet Al -Hallâj (about 857 – 922), the founder of Sufism and who was himself crucified. Ayman Baalbaki, “the painter of crosses” is one of the aspects of this artist that we obviously do not fully know, which also means that there is still a lot to say about him.
Now, if we take a step back to understand the relevance of Ayman Baalbaki’s proposals within the framework of contemporary artistic production on the Lebanese art scene, we need to place it in dialogue with the artistic experimentations of post-90s artists. These went more towards the practices of conceptual art with a specific discourse held on the post-war era. As an artist of this generation, Ayman offers a work inhabited by the same anxiety, but he nevertheless deviates from these practices by the very fact of his choice of painting, sometimes associated with a bygone modernity. Thus, painting for him is the place where this gap is considered, a place that blurs the codes and deconstructs the categories. It is therefore also the place where practices can be rethought.
Nayla Tamraz is a Lebanese writer, curator, researcher and professor of literature and art history at Saint Joseph University in Beirut where she has also been, from 2008 to 2017, the chair of the French Literature Department and where she created, in 2010, the MA and PhD. program in art criticism and curatorial studies that she currently heads. She also organized several events including the symposium Literature, Art et the Contemporary World: Narratives, History, Memory (2014, USJ, Beirut). In parallel, she leads a career as an art critic and a curator. In this context, she cocurated the exhibition The Secret (Espace Ygreg, Les Bons Voisins, 2017) and, more, recently, Inhabiting the Interstices (Galerie Michel Journiac, 2022) in Paris and curated the exhibition Poetics, Politics, Places that took place in the Museum of Fine Arts of Tucuman in Argentina, in the frame of the International Biennale of Contemporary Art of South America (BienalSur, 2017). Her research is about the issues related to the comparative theory and aesthetics of literature and art in their historical context, which brings her to the topics of history and memory, the topos of the ruins, the representations of territories and, more generally, to the relationship between poetics and politics in art and literature practices in post-war Lebanon. Her current research explores the concept of “plural modernities” and its relationship to the postcolonial and gender narratives.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #58 BEING AYMAN BAALBAKI