By Said Baalbaki
In our culture, the notion of brotherhood is related to stories of Cain and Abel, with one brother killing the other, but this has no relation to the brotherhood that Ayman and I share. Ayman was there the moment I opened my eyes on this world and he has been there ever since.
We were always like a body and its shadow. Until the year 2000 we were inseparable. That year Ayman had to go to Paris to study and I went to Amman to join a residency. Beyond this, we were together at school and university, even for military service, so we were together for the first decades of our life.
Although he is one year and nine days younger than me, we have always been more like twins. What makes our relationship special is the friendship that has always been present, and our mutual fascination with each other. We were opposites: I was chubby and he was thin, and each had a different character. Yet, we had this great fusion and alchemy in our ideas and how we view things, which gave a different character to our brotherhood.
We grew up fast. We were living in a kind of prison atmosphere, where we could do anything we wanted on the one condition of staying home. My father wasn’t there, so when our mother went out to buy groceries, we used to seize the opportunity to hunt among all the keys at home to find the one that would unlock the door. Once we found a way out, we used to wait for mum to leave so we could sneak out. We would go to Wadi Abou Jamil, scouring for things like albums, stamps, anything to do with the local inhabitants. Our neighbours used to collect and recycle cartons from Beirut and this was treasure for us. Whenever they came back home, we would start searching their truck and would often find things of value. Once we found a poem that had been sent by someone from the diaspora along with his image to his cousin. We were trying to rescue things from ending up in the trash. This is so related to my work today as my entire artistic career has been about reinterpreting lost things. We were only around eight to ten years old at that time, but we were influenced by the atmosphere we were raised in: our uncle and father used to love history and archaeology. We were youngsters searching for history and we are still searching for it. Some of the things we collected we would play with, some would be thrown away, and some were kept. I still have an image of the first female graduates from AUB in 1906, when they were around half a dozen girls. In 1975, we fled from Ras al Dekwaneh and moved to Wadi Abou Jamil. Once, when we found a house that had been robbed and which had no windows or doors left, my parents gathered together everything they found, from shoes to letters, and placed them in a wooden box in the attic in case the owners ever returned for their belongings. After years of war, in 1984, Ayman and I grabbed that box and transformed it into our own military tank. We had a huge space at home, so we made it into a war zone. We roamed around it in the tank so much that the neighbours got really annoyed. So, to our mother’s delight, we sold it and bought some toys with the money.
“We have an artistic background, so learning at university was secondary for us, but we had to continue our studies to launch our practical work.”
Our resumes for the first 25 years of our lives are identical. This twinning makes a special friendship that comes before brotherhood. We have an artistic background, so learning at university was secondary for us, but we had to continue our studies to launch our practical work. I used to learn more from Ayman than anyone else. I believe he was gifted and creative but also lazy. The best thing about university was our enthusiasm. We never worked on anything together, but on Valentine’s Day we used to stage an invasion in the road leading to university. We studied at Raouche in a building that wasn’t qualified to be a university building, but we were so excited that we painted the walls and doors, fixed the electricity and made our own curtains as we needed some darkness to paint. This experience was unique. We were building relationships as well. With Ali Kaaf, Mohamad Ezzedine and Raed Ibrahim, we were like a gang.
Even though Berlin became my refuge, I used to visit Beirut a lot. Indeed, physically speaking, I live in Berlin but spiritually I live in Beirut. If I hadn’t been introduced to Marwan Kassab Bashi and taken up the Amman residency, I would have followed the same trajectory as Ayman to Paris. A huge part of me – my relationship with books, libraries and archives – was influenced by the two years I spent there in the 1980s. The same goes for Ayman as well. However, although I love the city, I don’t like spending much time there, as it makes me feel under pressure.
I used to visit Ayman there and he would visit me in Berlin. Once, when Ayman was visiting and we were at an exhibition, we entered a hall where there was an installation made of military blankets. He asked me if I remembered the smell. I didn’t, but it was the same smell of blankets that they used to distribute in the war. For an artist, memory isn’t only visual but olfactory, and aromas heighten their sensitivity and creativity.
Childhood plays a huge role. When we worked on the memory of war in Beirut, there was huge opposition because people had had enough of the subject. But we grew up on stuff like that, so this was our memory. I often wonder why we didn’t work together as a duo. There was huge potential for that, since there was an aspect of our character that was totally different – I was organised and he was chaotic, yet mentally and creatively and the way we perceive things was so similar. I guess that is why we were never jealous of one another; jealousy was transformed into a motivation to push one another. All of this makes our bond so special. My works are showcased at Ayman’s house, while his works overshadow mine at my house. This shows how each of us would like to showcase and promote the other. I don’t even have any space left at home to hang any more of his works, but I still try to acquire more as he is generous.
“I often wonder why we didn’t work together as a duo. There was huge potential for that, since there was an aspect of our character that was totally different – I was organised and he was chaotic, yet mentally and creatively and the way we perceive things was so similar.”
I like a huge part of his works. In terms of most influential, the “Al-Mulatham” series became iconic and maybe this was unfair to his other works. I love “Al-Mulatham”, but I also like the sniper for the Holiday In that he exhibited at Arabicity with Rose Issa; it is still in my mind. There are also the works from the July war of 2006.
Anyone who knows Ayman knows his background and what the Venice Biennale means to him. Although I haven’t seen the finished work of “Janus Gate” yet, Ayman sent me an image of the unfinished work, and we discussed the idea, as we always do. We are soul mates: even if we are separated by distance, spiritually we are still together.
Painter Said Baalbaki, known as Baal, was born in Lebanon in 1974 and now lives in Berlin. He first studied painting at the Institut des Beaux-Arts, Beirut (1998), followed by the Marwan Summer Academy at the Darat al Funun in Amman (2001). He then studied painting at the University of the Arts, Berlin (Universität der Künste Berlin), attending the masterclasses of Burkhard Held (2005). He graduated with a Masters of Arts from the Institute for Art in Context, University of the Arts, Berlin (2008)