At a time when pundits speculate about the national currency’s imminent collapse, a 22-year-old student and aspiring artist wants us to rethink how we perceive money.
Ibrahim Sultani’s project, “Making the Lebanese Lira Worthy Again,” is a series of delicate portraits of Lebanese celebrities, rendered on Lebanese coins and notes, giving them a value beyond currency.
Since he started working on the series in December 2016, Sultani has painted over 20 portraits on his unusual canvases, including vocalist Melhem Barakat, fashion designer Elie Saab and filmmaker Nadine Labaki.
When choosing his subjects, Sultani drew upon folks from a wide range of fields – cinema, music, theater, sports and journalism. All the subjects from this diverse sample are, he said, “people who give a positive image of Lebanon.”
Despite multiple requests for portraits of leaders occupying Lebanon’s political landscape, Sultani said he avoids such figures, preferring to paint “the sort of people that unite, instead of divide.”
Sultani’s most popular portrait is of Fairouz, the “Jewel of Lebanon,” painted on a LL1,000 note. “I have probably painted eight or nine portraits of Fairouz,” he told The Daily Star.
He said he considers portraiture the most challenging art form, as even the most marginal errors have a profound impact on the overall image. “If you mess up by even 1 millimeter, it becomes a totally different person,” he said. “If it takes someone a while to recognize the face, it’s clearly not working.”
Sultani said he’s never attended an art class or had any other formal training, and seems proud of this.
“It’s a God-given gift,” he said, grinning coyly.
Sultani said his interest in currency began just over two years ago, when he was handed a LL500 coin, dated 1994. “I was amazed that this coin, which was older than me and had circulated for over 22 years, had landed in my hand,” he said.
From there, he began collecting coins and banknotes until he had amassed a pile of coins and over a hundred LL1,000 bills, including notes dating from the ’80s that he inherited from his late grandfather.
Sultani felt it would be a waste to spend the money. Instead he wanted to “do something … artistic,” though it took some time for him to find what exactly that was.
He took inspiration from Andy Warhol, who once said, “I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally, one lady asked the right question, ‘What do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”
“To Warhol, this meant painting pictures of money and dollar signs on canvas,” Sultani explained.
“But for me, it means painting onto the money.
“Our currency has lost so much value. In the past, 1,000 [Lebanese liras] could buy you a car,” Sultani lamented. “Nowadays, all you can get with that is a couple of bottles of water.”
In this period of economic uncertainty, numerous social media critics have accused Sultani of “wasting money,” suggesting he use washable paint or donate his bills to others less fortunate than himself.
“It’s a stupid argument,” Sultani declared, adding that the sum of the money he has painted on in the past two years amounts to around $100 – far less than the cost of using traditional media like canvas.
“I’ve saved this money to invest in a project,” Sultani said.
“Art is a statement.”
In a piece conceived for Lebanon’s 75th Independence Day last November, Sultani decried the country’s political class, “who perceive Lebanon as a source of [material] gain … even if it means having people’s blood on their hands.”
Titled “Resilience vs. Greed,” the sculpture depicts the lira in various denominations, bound together to form a cedar tree splattered with red paint.
An architecture student in his final year at the Lebanese American University, Sultani has to juggle art with studies.
This doesn’t phase him, as “you create time for what you love.”
After his graduation, he hopes to exhibit his work and become a full-time artist, turning his passion into a career.