“This is what we could do”

As Lebanon enters another month of darkness thanks to constant power cuts, a new exhibition in Paris instead focuses on the decades of artists who put the country in the spotlight.

“Artists often say that Lebanon has an exceptional light. For me, this ‘light’ is the luminaries who have made Beirut a brilliant city in the East throughout each decade of its troubled history ”, explains Claude Lemand, Franco-Lebanese collector who lives in Paris and co – curator of the Lumières exhibition. from Lebanon, or Lights of Lebanon, which opened last month at the Institut du Monde Arabe.

The exhibition features works by 55 artists from Lebanon from the 1950s to the present day. “The show bears witness to the radiant face of another Lebanon. Its artists are neither strictly Western nor Eastern, they belong to this country, ”says Lemand.

Eleven young artists in the exhibition, aged between 21 and 35, were selected by open call to participate in the exhibition. The commissioned works were acquired by Claude and France Lemand and donated to the permanent collection of the Institut du Monde Arabe. “We asked them to submit a work on Beirut,” Lemand recalls. Most of the works on display are part of the Lemands’ donation of 1,600 works of art from the Arab world since 2018.

The exhibition begins today and traces the history of the country to the Lebanese civil war and the ‘golden’ decades of the 1950s and 1960s. “As Lebanon is increasingly in the dark, we have chose to start from the current context and go back in time to the golden age, ”explains Lemand.

But it is not only light and optimism that the exhibition evokes. Stairs lead visitors to the lower ground floor. “It’s like the descent into hell,” said Lemand. Upon entering, visitors see Ayman Baalbaki’s The end (2016), a painting of the foundations of a concrete building with the neon inscription “The End”. The work evokes the sense of an end that is present in Beirut today.

Beyond that, the room reveals the flourishing moments of the Lebanese art scene with a series of paintings by Etel Adnan and the celebration of artist Taghreed Darghouth The tree inside. A Palestinian olive tree (2020). Other works, such as that of the composer and visual artist Zad Moultaka Apocalypse Beirut 6:10 am (2020), refer to the recent economic and social turmoil in the country.

The youngest artist in the exhibition, Elias Nafaa, 24, has produced a room-sized installation centered on the performance of Syrian singer Asmahan Layali al-Ons in Vienna in 1944. The song, which was “deconstructed” for the exhibition, carries an Arab identity, while fantasizing about the West.

The museum‘s hypostyle hall, known for its postmodern colonnade, has been transformed into an indoor sculpture park. There, the sculpture by the Lebanese-Senegalese artist Hady Sy Beirut 6:09 (2020) commemorates the port explosion of August 4. In the following rooms are works by masters of modern art including Paul Guiragossian, Shafic Aboud and Saliba Douaihy.

Regional artists living in Lebanon are an important part of the show. “The exhibition concerns artists from Lebanon, not just Lebanese artists. Armenians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians have all made Lebanon their home, ”says Lemand. “Throughout its history, the people of Lebanon have been made up of persecuted communities who have sought refuge in the mountains and later along the coast.

Among them, Palestinian artist of Iranian origin Maliheh Afnan and Guiragossian, the son of Armenian refugees. Recent paintings and sculptures by Iraqi-Kurdish artist Serwan Baran, who lives in Beirut, are also on display. And, in a similar vein, Lemand hopes to show the influence of Lebanon’s global diaspora. The young filmmaker Layal Nakhle was born in Côte d’Ivoire in 1992 and currently lives in Barcelona. his video News from the house (2020) juxtaposes scenes from Beirut and the Catalan city.

The exhibition has been divided into three chronologically distinct sections. The first focuses on the years following the Cedar Revolution in 2005: the country experienced an economic recovery after the withdrawal of Syrian troops, while suffering the fallout from the conflict in Syria. The second section is devoted to artistic production at the time and its consequences under the Syrian occupation, until the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

Finally, visitors access the golden age of artistic production in Lebanon. “Artists, poets and writers from the Arab world came to show their work in Beirut. The city had become a cultural capital. There was a freedom of expression that was different from the surrounding Arab nationalist governments, which were autocratic and inspired by the Soviet Union, ”says Lemand.

Despite these chronological divisions, works from different generations of artists appear in the different rooms. This allowed curators to exhibit the work of lesser-known artists alongside the masters, but can be confusing to visitors.

The exhibition marks the inauguration of the Arab World Institute’s Donors’ Space on the lower levels. For this, the museum commissioned the Lebanese architect and musician Carl Gerges to design the exhibition space. “Once you have gone down the stairs, you step out of the avant-garde and brutalist universe of Jean Nouvel [the architect who designed the building] to the one who looks like us today, ”says Lemand. “It’s archaic, warmer and more human.”

The walls are painted in earthy colors, reminiscent of Luxor’s cultural heritage sites in Baalbek and Palmyra. “What unites us in the Arab world is our ancient cultural heritage and our buildings made of earth, sand and stone,” he says. The paint itself was mixed with soil from Lebanon and the exhibition materials were produced in Lebanon by local artisans.

Although he finds hope in Lebanon’s past, Lemand is ambivalent about its future. “We tried to help artists because we are in the arts sector. It’s not a big contribution, but it’s what we could do, ”he said. “Yet today two million people live in poverty and risk disease and starvation. “

Lemand also hopes that the show will move to other institutions internationally. Restagings are currently under discussion with institutions in Singapore, Morocco and the United States. “The Institute has the largest collection of art in the Arab world,” he says. “Our goal is to ensure that these works are exhibited abroad.

Update: October 18, 2021, 4:12 am

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