June, 2008


IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, group shows of Middle Eastern artists have become increasingly frequent in the West: This spring, “Les Inquiets” (The Anxious) took place at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; last year saw “In Focus,” three interrelated shows in London; and “Without Boundary” was staged at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006. If the motivation behind many of these shows has in large part been a long-overdue reexamination of Western assumptions about the region since 2001, the results have been mixed. Some, like “Les Inquiets,” were in danger of reducing artists to mere chroniclers of war, while others, like “Without Boundary,” ignored politics altogether.

Beirut and its artists have often been at the center of this international focus. The contemporary art scene in Beirut, as is typical of the Middle East, operates largely outside the system of commercial galleries and public institutions; it has thrived, however, as a tight-knit collaborative community within the alternative infrastructure created by local nonprofit arts organizations. The most prominent of these is Ashkal Alwan, which has curated exhibitions and programs since the mid1990s. In 2002, under the direction of Christine Tohme, it launched Home Works, a “forum on cultural practices.” The addendum “in the region”-plus a listing of the countries this was meant to comprise: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria-was dropped after the first year, but Home Works has retained its focus on artists from the Middle East and its diaspora, serving primarily as a place for self-reflection among practitioners and for discussion with a predominantly regional audience.

Since its first iteration, the forum has been held roughly every year and a half, falling victim to constant delays-what Ashkal Alwan calls a “regular schedule of regular disruptions.” However, the gap between Home Works III in November 2005, and IV, this past April, was unusually long. The third installment had itself been postponed from earlier that year because of the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, which precipitated a turbulent period in the city’s historymassive protests that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops; the traumatic summer of 2006, when Israel bombed southern Beirut; and the ongoing power struggle between the government and Hezbollah, which has left Lebanon without a president for more than six months. Only two weeks after the close of this year’s forum, tensions flared into the worst sectarian violence since the end of the civil war in 1990, before negotiations appeared to resolve, at least for now, the political crisis.

Beirut was calm earlier this spring, though, and Home Works IV took place as planned. The event adopted the forum’s conventional format, with nine da ys of lectures, panels, screenings, performances, and associated exhibitions at some eight different locations, ranging from the Masrah al Madina theater in western Beirut and commercial art galleries to a children’s science museum and a church crypt. The forum featured dozens of artists, art historians, and critics, and brought many more from around the world. For numerous Westerners, the event marked their first trip to the city-a fact that did not go unnoticed by Beirutis, who, although certainly welcoming, were wary of curators circulating ideas for exhibitions focused on “regions of conflict” and of a faddish concern with geopolitical hot spots.

“Disaster” and “catastrophe” were proposed as two of Home Works IV’s “thematic axes,” but their counterparts preservation and reconstruction could equally have been invoked. These-along with their political instrumentalization-are central issues in Beirut, where the built environment has changed dramatically in the past two decades. While bombed-out buildings such as a former Holiday Inn stand as a testament to the damage done during the country’s fifteen-year civil war, and construction cranes loom along the corniche, most of the reconstruction is in fact the result of the government’s own development plan. In the early ’90s, the government expropriated hundreds of acres of private property and handed it over to Solidere, a private construction company founded by Prime Minister Hariri, which gutted, tore down, and rebuilt downtown Beirut as a manicured commercial center with sparkling facades.

Two talks at Home Works IV by architects based in Beirut touched on the debate around Solidere, about which everybody in the city seems to have something to say. Bernard Khoury discussed signature buildings he has designed in Beirut, such as the nightclub B018 and the restaurant Centrale, which specifically-and stylishly-respond to the histories of their sites rather than seek to erase them, while Tony Chakar addressed Hezbollah’s efforts to rebuild homes in the southern suburbs after the 2006 bombings. In direct opposition to Solidere’s approach to reconstruction, Hezbollah’s aim has been to return displaced families to their homes as quickly as possible, rebuilding and repairing damaged buildings with as few alterations as possible, so as to avoid “rupture and alienation” and “gaps in the collective memory.” But by attempting to join the present seamlessly to the time before the attacks, Chakar argued, Hezbollah is calling for “a collective memory that suffers from amnesia.” In the post-talk discussion-which was typical of the forum’s Q&A sessions in its thoughtful questions and passionate attacks-one man objected, “You have tried to throw an ideology in a circle! Why do you want to keep the houses like works of art?”

The involvement of architecture in the preservation of an often painful past was central to “Back to the Present,” a powerful exhibition at Agial Art Gallery. Here Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige presented two videos focusing on the Khiam Detention Center, which was set up by the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s proxy militia during its occupation of the region from 1978 to 2000. Khiam, 2000, which features interviews with former prisoners, was here paired with a work made seven years later, Khiam II, in which the same six men and women react to the destruction of the camp buildings during Israel’s 2006 bombing campaign. By this time, however, the prison had been turned into a museum; an accompanying photographic series, “War Trophies,” 2006-2007, depicts remnants of the tanks and artillery that were on display, attacked apparently not because of their use as weapons but because of their role as memorials.

Such kinds of politically infused documentary are, as critics regularly point out, in many ways typical of Lebanese artists of the” postwar generation”-figures now in their thirties and forties, who were heavily represented at Home Works. Given Lebanon’s recent past, this is understandable: The country’s “official” history ends with its independence in 1946, after which date each sectarian group (or even every individual) has its own account. The many narratives and images of the war form the subject of How Nancy Wished that Everything Was an April Fool’s fake, 2007, by Rabih Mroue and Fadi Toufiq, which was performed during” the forum to a packed theater, as locals joined the artworld crowd. The play features four characters who recount the history of the civil war through the battles in which they fought and died. After every death, each character rises to rejoin the fight, often as a member of another political party; a backdrop of posters continually changes to commemorate the martyrs. The originals of these posters were themselves on display in the exhibition “Signs of Conflict,” one of the most fascinating presentations in this Home Works. Drawing from a massive archive compiled by Zeina Maasri, a professor of graphic design at American University of Beirut, the show assembled approximately three hundred posters from thirty different political factions during the civil war; at the time, these images would have been pasted around the city, competing ideologies calling for the attention of passersby.

This public battle of images continues today, as portraits of politicians and killed combatants line Beirut’s streets, but another lecture at Home Works showed that even landscape photography can be political. Palestinian writer and journalist Elias Sanbar described how turnof- the-twentieth-century photographs of Palestine published in the West emphasized religious sites and landscapes while largely ignoring its residents, thus helping to bolster the Zionist movement’s claim of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Some of these “missing” people and their histories were affectingly portrayed on another occasion during the forum, however, in Lamia Joreige’s forty-minute video Un Voyage (A Journey), 2006, a multi-generational portrait of the women in the Lebanese artist’s family, interwoven with photographs of her relatives in Jaffa, before their forced relocation in 1948.

Many of the week’s engagements with photography, though, were less politically inclined. One highlight necessitated an excursion one hour south of Beirut, as forum participants accompanied Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari to his hometown of Saida. Here he presented the third part of his ongoing “excavation” of the studio of Hashem el Madani, a portrait photographer who began his professional career in the city in the late 1940s. For “Hashem elMadani: Itinerary,” Zaatari reprinted Madani’s photographs of merchants in front of their stores and placed the images in the original locations depicted, although the stores and their owners have changed. While this field trip risked turning the forum’s participants into tourists and Saida’s shops and residents into spectacle, Zaatari’s project was compelling in its effort to bring the archive out of the studio, storage space, and gallery and into the public sphere, mapping a history onto the city itself. If in earlier projects, with Madani and with other photographers, Zaatari has sought to recuperate images not previously seen as art, here he simultaneously returns them to their point of origin within the fabric of everyday life.

Given the preponderance of works dealing with regional history and politics, one segment of the forum-also organized by Zaatari-stood out from the rest. At the end of the week, he presented three evenings of video and film screenings, titled “Let It Be,” which consisted almost entirely of work by artists from outside the Middle East; the thirdand by far the strongest-section featured only videos by Los Angeles-based artist William E. Jones. Although this series of events was billed as looking at “sex practices,” the program turned out to focus nearly exclusively on those of gay men. Beirut may be one of the most tolerant cities in the Middle East, but the second night of screenings in particular would have raised eyebrows anywhere, except at a gay film festival. Yet in the panel discussion after the last night of the series, Zaatari provocatively claimed, “The purpose of this program was not to be provocative.” His further statement “I was trying to avoid metaphors” made a great deal of sense, however: In the Middle East, he explained, sex in films is only alluded to poetically-with a shot of, say, water going down a drain. Much of “Let It Be,” on the other hand, was an in-your-face documentation of homosexuality. If the program seemed far from the concerns of the rest of the work shown during the forum, in opening up an archive and making visible the invisible, it was perhaps not as distant as it seemed at first sight.

But perhaps the most fitting metaphor for the ways in which artists construct historical narratives was provided by a video by Iranian artist Vahid Zara Zade. PO W57187, 2007, tells the story of an Iraqi who was taken prisoner during the Iran-Iraq War. Now free to leave, he instead remains in the disused camp, making mannequins and dioramas that reenact events from his imprisonment, continually updating murals to depict present-day politics, and even giving the occasional tour to schoolchildren. Trapped in history, he spends his days curating what has become, in effect, a museum of his life.