Why Did Artist Bassam Kahwagi Wait 25 Years to have Another Paint Exhibit?

Why Did Artist Bassam Kahwagi Wait 25 Years to have Another Paint Exhibit?

Almost 25 years since his last public exhibition, artist Bassam Kahwagi has returned to the art scene with his show “To Have Been Built,” up at Hamra’s Agial Art Gallery.

Comprised of about 100 paintings, drawings and objects, the show gathers work created in the past four years, when Kahwagi decided to restart his professional career.

“Four years ago I started working again seriously and I wanted to show what I’ve been working on. With what we’ve been experiencing this year, I felt it was right time,” Kahwagi told The Daily Star. “It’s a challenge to say, ‘Yes, I can show art in such a situation.’ It’s about the whole year, not just the explosion, as I personally need a lot more time to process what happened and to interpret it artistically … I’m barely managing my feelings, which is not a state to create in.”

Kahwagi belongs to a generation of artists who were prominent in the latter years of the Civil War, and he last showed work in 1994. He studied painting in Paris in the early 1980s and began to exhibit his works in Lebanon later in the decade.

“We had just finished the war, which I painted and exhibited throughout,” Kahwagi said. “After the war, a new movement of conceptual artists came, who had maybe a more complex discourse than traditional arts, so I decided to take a step back, let these artists take the scene. I went back to my workshop to see about the right time to come back. I needed to stop and see what would happen.”

While many artists have now turned their creative efforts to capturing the tumultuous emotions left by the Aug. 4 blast or seeking to spread a message of hope, Kahwagi is uninterested in such narratives and seeks to present something more speculative.

His works are abstract, with pops of color hidden beneath swaths of black boxes, like a redacted document. Viewers seeking themes or narrative in this work find Kahwagi offers none.

“People’s first question is always ‘What does this mean?’ But I don’t know. I don’t interfere between the viewer and the artwork. They can use their own memories or identity to form a meaning,” he said. “Painting, in my opinion, has nothing to say. It’s about the process of painting, the moment and how I work in the workshop, the relationship with the canvas and material.

“My work is abstract, so already there is no story or narration in my work, other than the creation of the work itself,” he added. “When the viewer sees the whole show, they can start to create their own narrative based on their point of view.”

The exhibition also shows branches of charcoal, partially covered in gold paint. The shapes are reminiscent of the forms in his paintings.

“The charcoals are a recent trial I’m doing with 3D objects. I was searching for a new material to work with, and I looked at charcoal for uses other than just drawing with it, I used BBQ charcoal to work on directly,” Kahwagi said. “The idea of associating charcoal with gold came to mind, knowing that charcoal is a very last stable state of the material. Gold is a transformed manmade material and doesn’t change over time, so I wanted to associate the two.”

“To Have Been Built” is up at Agial Art Gallery, off Hamra, until Nov. 7

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