Lebanese Artists Examine How Their Country Reached Its Current Juncture

“After the explosion, I was ready to give away everything I’ve ever done if it made the situation better.”

“I hopped on any opportunity to donate my work in exchange for raising funds,” says Lebanese visual artist Ayla Hibri. “A lot of good people put together these platforms of exchange and it really felt like it was helping. It confirmed to me that art carries a kind of transferable honorable energy that can push people to do good.”

Hibri is by no means alone. Following the lethal blast in the Port of Beirut in August, Mary Cremin, the director of Void Gallery in Northern Ireland, reached out to Beirut Art Residency (BAR), offering the organization her support. She was willing to host a fundraising exhibition at her space in Derry, with all proceeds going towards the BAR Support Fund, which provides emerging artists with small grants.

“It was a very stressful period for us, as all three of our spaces in Gemmayze (the residency, the Project Space and La Vitrine) were heavily affected by the blast, as well as our homes,” says Nathalie Ackawi, partner and co-director at BAR. “We were, however, very moved by the messages of support we received, and this gave us strength to work on this exhibition.”

The end result is “Before the Cypress Broke,” which brings together work from 15 contemporary artists and addresses the seemingly simple, yet immensely complex, question of how Lebanon reached its current juncture. Borrowing its name from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Cypress Broke,” the exhibition includes work from Ali Cherri, Charbel Haber, Omar Khouri, Salah Missi, Sirine Fattouh, Stephanie Dadour, Sandrine Pelletier, Gregory Buchakjian, Valerie Cachard, Ziad Antar and Hussein Nassereddine.

Hibri’s “Everlasting Massacre” was the first piece to be selected for the exhibition, “mainly because of the strong duality it holds,” says Amar Zahr, founder and co-director of BAR. “At first glance it looks to be a beautiful view. However, upon closer inspection the viewer will notice the mountain is literally being scraped off for cement — an illegal practice whereby Lebanon’s mountains are being wiped off the map. The natural environment has been altered for the sake of profitable investments, to build skyscrapers and to export cement. It’s a strong statement on the corruption that was ignored for so long, but is now clearly visible in the altered landscape of the country.”

Another of Hibri’s photographs, “Everlasting Residue,” is also included in the show. Both are part of a series called “Acts of Violence.” They represent what Hibri describes as “unfortunate interventions” — acts of apathy, indifference or contempt that are sadly common in Lebanon.

“They range from a plastic chair left behind after a picnic, to a whole mountain being destroyed, and it gets worse and worse until it leads to the explosion of the port and the destruction of half the city,” she says. “It’s all connected. They are examples that capture arrogance, negligence and disregard — attitudes and sightings that we have learned to live with. These photographs carry the weight of the price we have to pay and the damage that will need to be reversed in order to transcend to a better place.”

Although she wasn’t in Beirut at the time, the explosion halted everything for Hibri and her priorities radically shifted. She concentrated on being available for her family and friends, raising funds, and talking about what had happened in an attempt to try and understand. On a creative level, however, she has struggled. “It’s actually been quite hard. I couldn’t bring myself to take photos of Beirut after the explosion and I only managed to shoot one roll of film, which came out quite special but I will keep it to myself for now. It doesn’t feel right. Not much feels right to be honest when there is so much change to deal with and so many people suffering,” she says. “I spent most of my time the last few months researching, learning about our history, and trying to keep up with events as they occur, while maintaining my daily practice of going to the studio and working.”

In contrast, Jacques Vartabedian’s “Prelude to Reversal” was an almost immediate response to the explosion — an attempt to recreate the destruction that he saw around him. It features a lone figure blended into a complex but colorful environment.

“I started painting it while the studio was in a chaotic state after the blast,” explains Vartabedian, whose studio is in the heavily damaged area of Mar Mikhael. “I just kept going to the studio for weeks, simply sitting there in the destruction and trying to digest it without moving a thing. I realized the need to recreate harmony with all the destruction around me by reimagining it in an aesthetic form.”

Vartabedian, perhaps, is in the minority. Daniele Genadry has also struggled creatively, not just with the explosion, but with all that has happened in Lebanon over the course of the past few years. She has found it “hard to react directly or even immediately on a creative level,” although she has been working on the idea of “first and last sight,” whereby perception is heightened through the knowledge of something’s potential loss. In other words, any given thing is only really seen for the first time when it is about to disappear.

For the exhibition, which runs until June 5, Zahr and Ackawi chose a handful of prints from Genadry’s “Afterglow,” which features 20 photographs of a mountain view taken from Qartaba in Mount Lebanon. Shot over the course of 10 years, they vary in terms of timing, positioning, lighting and perspective, creating images that are “at once familiar and strange,” says Genadry, who also played with the distribution of light and color in each photograph. She then screen-printed them in black and white on mylar, a translucent material that changes appearance according to the light conditions in which the photographs are viewed.

“I think we are at a point right now where our perception of all nature is affected by a kind of bittersweet quality,” she says, “knowing that it is in danger and threatened due to the climate crisis and the shift in our relationship with it.” And because “Before the Cypress Broke” converses with grief and inevitability, says Genadry, “Afterglow” resonated “with the way I have approached the landscape motif in my work recently — as a bittersweet image.”

Although the question is left unspoken, all of the participating artists are faced with the same question: Where do they go from here? It’s almost impossible to answer.

“I believe that solidarity amongst the different players of the art scene both locally and internationally is essential,” says Ackawi. “Art and culture have always been essential pillars of the Lebanese identity, as well as its economy and tourism. It’s important for artists to continue to create and tell our story. As for us, as art practitioners and curators it is our job to support them in any way we can.”

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