BEIRUT: “After the explosion, I was ready to give anything I ever did if it improved the situation. I jumped at any opportunity to donate my work in exchange for fundraising, ”explains Lebanese visual artist Ayla Hibri. “A lot of good people set up these exchange platforms and I really felt like it was helping. It confirmed to me that art carries a kind of transferable honorable energy that can inspire people to do good.
Hibri is by no means alone. Following the deadly explosion in the Port of Beirut in August, Mary Cremin, the director of Void Gallery in Northern Ireland, contacted Beirut Art Residency (BAR), offering her support to the organization. She was willing to host a fundraising exhibition in her Derry space, with all proceeds going to the BAR Support Fund, which provides emerging artists with small grants.
“It was a very stressful period for us, because our three spaces in Gemmayze (the residence, the Project Space and La Vitrine) were strongly affected by the explosion, as well as our houses”, explains Nathalie Ackawi, partner and co – director at BAR. “However, we were very touched by the messages of support we received and this gave us the strength to work on this exhibition.
The end result is ‘Before the Cypress Broke’, which brings together the work of 15 contemporary artists and tackles the seemingly simple, but immensely complex question of how Lebanon reached its current stage. Borrowing its name from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Cypress Broke”, the exhibition includes works by 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, “primarily because of the strong duality it holds,” says Amar Zahr, founder and co-director of BAR. . However, on closer inspection, the viewer will notice that the mountain is literally scraped to cement – an illegal practice by which the mountains of Lebanon are wiped off the map. The natural environment has been altered for profitable investments, to build skyscrapers and to export cement. It is a strong statement about corruption that has been ignored for so long, but is now clearly visible in the changed landscape of the country. “
Another of Hibri’s photographs, “Everlasting Residue,” is also included in the exhibition. 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.
“It goes from a plastic chair left after a picnic, to an entire destroyed mountain, and it just gets worse and worse until it leads to the explosion of the port and the destruction of half of it.” the city, ”she said. “Everything is connected. These are examples that capture arrogance, neglect and contempt – attitudes and observations that we have come 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.
Even though she wasn’t in Beirut at the time, the explosion stopped everything for Hibri and her priorities drastically changed. She focused on being available for family and friends, fundraising, and talking about what had happened to try to figure it out. Creatively, however, she struggled. “It was actually quite difficult. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures of Beirut after the explosion and only managed to shoot one roll of film, which came out quite special but I’ll keep it to myself for now . It’s not okay. There isn’t much that is right to be honest when there are so many changes to deal with and so many people are in pain, ”she said. “I have spent most of my time over the past few months researching, uncovering our history, and trying to keep up with events as they occur, while maintaining my daily practice of going to the studio and work. ”
In contrast, Jacques Vartabedian’s “Prelude to the Overthrow” was an almost immediate response to the explosion – an attempt to recreate the destruction he saw around him. It features a lonely figure blended into a complex yet colorful environment.
“I started painting it when the studio was in a chaotic state after the explosion,” says Vartabedian, whose studio is in the heavily damaged area of Mar Mikhael. “I kept going to the studio for weeks, just sitting there in the destruction and trying to digest it without moving anything. I realized the need to recreate harmony with all the destruction around me by reinventing it in an aesthetic form.
Vartabedian may be in the minority. Daniele Genadry has also struggled creatively, not only with the explosion, but with everything that has happened in Lebanon over the past few years. She had “struggled to react directly or even immediately on a creative level”, although she had worked on the idea of ”first and last sight”, whereby perception is reinforced by knowledge of the potential loss of Something. In other words, a given thing is only actually seen for the first time when it is about to disappear.
For the exhibition, which runs until June 5, Zahr and Ackawi have chosen a handful of prints from Genadry’s “Afterglow,” which features 20 photographs of a mountain view taken from Qartaba in Mount Lebanon. Shot over 10 years, they vary in timing, positioning, lighting and perspective, creating images “both familiar and strange,” says Genadry, who also played with the distribution of light and color. in each photograph. She then screenprinted them in black and white onto mylar, a translucent material that changes appearance depending on the light conditions in which the photographs are seen.
“I think we’re at a point right now where our perception of all of nature is affected by some kind of bittersweet quality,” she says, “knowing that she is endangered and threatened due to the climate crisis and of changing our relationship with it. ”And because“ Before the Cypress Broke ”converses with grief and inevitability, says Genadry,“ Afterglow “resonated” with the way I approached the landscape motif in my work recently – like a bittersweet picture. “
Although the question is not asked, all participating artists are faced with the same question: where do they go from here? It is almost impossible to answer.
“I think that solidarity between the different actors in the art scene, both locally and internationally, is essential,” says Ackawi. “Art and culture have always been essential pillars of Lebanese identity, as well as of its economy and tourism. It is important for artists to continue to create and tell our story. As for us, as art practitioners and curators, it is our duty to support them in any way we can.