Art and Lebanon 13/07/2020


The cedars are crying and they’ve yet to stop…

Drawing the lines of hope, depicting the cedars many a times, but the pigment would not run green…

A new pen is needed

I’ve started writing these lines a thousand times….Deleted and started again.
Unsure of the words that will weigh heavy enough to relay the pain and suffering happening in the Lebanon. Unsure if words are needed.
I’m certainly aware that I am unable to separate my emotions from these lines.
Yet the arts help. They heal, they relieve, and can showcase inner feelings.

The dilemma for some of talking about art (and funding the arts) in critical times, is not lost on me. But this space won’t be used to argue for or against it, but to relay a little on how the arts have risen as a power, showcased hardships, perspectives, narratives, and utilised as a relief to many and to the current critical situation. 

So to the arts we look….

Art has always had a home in Lebanon, museums, art foundations, galleries are a plenty. Musée Sursock, Beit Beirut, MACAM, Ashkal Alwan, Beirut Art Centre, Saleh Barakat Gallery, Galerie Tanit, Galerie Janine Rubeiz, Arab Image Foundation, and many more creative outlets and spaces, breathe out the artistic pulse of the country. Artists have found room to express themselves amongst the war torn buildings and modern infrastructure that encompasses Lebanon. There are too many prominent artists to name them all, and a number of prominent women artists from Saloua Raouda ChoucairHuguette Caland to Etel Adnan.                                                                                                                                                                                  The memory of war, its effects, trauma, life in post-war Lebanon, conflicting architecture, identity, displacement, have not just been subject matters for many artists, but lived experiences, and thus explored in depth within their work. Artists such as Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari amongst many others, have confronted some of these very notions. In these current difficult times, yet again, the arts in Lebanon have been a tool, one of resistance, resilience, encouragement, change and hope, with artists such as Jad El Khoury, Roula Abdo, Ashekman, and organisations like Art of Change painting the walls of Lebanon for those elements to shine through art amidst the darkness of the politics, and amidst the electricity cuts. The arts have also been put forward to raise much needed funds for NGO’s, with artistic initiatives such as Musica Sawa, Dikkéni and L.A.B Tombola.

The situation is urgent. Hunger is at people’s doors. Human Rights are not just being neglected, they are being eradicated. Criminal defamation laws were used to halt freedom of expression and criticism, inevitably targeting the press, activists and bloggers. Lebanon had prided itself on being a country of relative freedom of speech - even throughout the war(s).  One of the founding members of the committee for the Declaration of Human Rights, Charles Malik, was Lebanese, so it is puzzling for many why they are not fully implemented in his own country. Human Rights Watch having investigated and reported on the current situation, responded by being part of the fourteen Lebanese and international organisations, in a “Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon’.

Though the lack of freedom of expression has recently been brought to the forefront, it is an issue that, despite the country’s stance for a free press throughout its turbulent history, has plagued the fabric of the country.  Art reacted to the of lack of Freedom of Expression around 2011-2012, through the mural ”To be Free or not to be” by Ashekman, voicing with paint strokes that very aspect. Seen as controversial by some authorities, it was erased. So in collaboration with the NGO March Lebanon,  Ashekman painted the calligraffiti mural again in 2015, around the time of the country’s Trash Crisis, to showcase, as relayed by Omar Kabbbani of Ashekman, that all citizens have a right to a speak up on the social and political issues of their country, and that art, the artists are there in support of that, as well as in support of finding a solution to the then Trash Crisis.                                                                   

Censorship is as we all know used to silence, but art can often speak louder. Street art in Lebanon is a lifeline, a heartbeat, a reassurance, a fresh landscape. A loud and at the same time silent communication tool and understanding between its civil society, viewer, audience, citizen and the artists and their art. 

For far too long, Lebanon has been living on the edge, hanging by a thread. Weaving it together was and is its civil society. They kept the country’s roots watered, for many years cultivating the seeds of hope, the seeds of their business, their agriculture, their future, and their resilience. Grassroot schemes, such as the recycling project Live Love Recycle, founded by Georges Bitar, an app that allows drivers to geo-localise a person and pick up their trash in less than 2 hours, then drop it in a recycling center, was one of the projects that aimed to a find solution to the Trash Crisis. The arts also linked with environmental causes, aim to find sustainable ways of living, with projects like EcoSouk, founded by Joslin Kehdy from Recycle Lebanon (a social change and circular economy hub) who sell amongst other things, artistic eco products, and Ziad Abichaker of Cedar Environmental, who set up glass bottle bins around Beirut in order to take any throwaway glass to Sarafand, an area known for their glassblowing,and form them into different shapes by glassblowers. Design has also lent its way to find solutions to the country’s lack of green spaces, with artist Nathalie Harb’s project 'Urban Hives', designed to bring green spaces into cities, through low-cost modular structures erected over open-air parking in city car parks, thus creating a garden space in an urban setting. 

Despite these incredible efforts, with little support from an entity such as the state, like a copy and paste tool, Lebanon’s civil society and its diaspora had to copy and paste their concerns. 

Since October 2019, widely known as the start of the Lebanese Revolution, the language of art and music spoke of concerns. Re-painting the walls with colours of justice. Banners with art for human rights. Going online with tunes of hope, memes of unfortunate laughter and peaceful fighters and initiatives for fairness and rights. A number of Lebanese had picked up their pens and paints to relieve their grievances. Much of the art can be found on Art of Thawra, an instagram account created by Paola Mounla. An art, that as Paola refers to, will bare witness for the future. Artists such as Myriam Boulos, photographs the uprisings, with all its emotion, sweat, tears, joy and community spirit, and artist illustrator Nourie Flayan paints activists and rights.            

Artists from the Lebanon have embodied their art to document the uprisings, feelings and frustrations. Relaying sentiments through art, as the sun rising within people’s soul, onto the tip of their tongues, with every protest chant, through every art depicted, it showcases the voice of the now. The urgency of which is seen at the click of every camera, the scribble of every pen and through the cultural element in the country. 

The cultural sector envelops many organisations, art galleries and cultural entities. The start of the Revolution, saw them unite and put out a statement in support of what was taking shape on the streets and in many people’s hearts. Stating in part that they were: “ In solidarity with and participation in the popular uprisings taking place across Lebanon against the current systems of power, we the undersigned cultural organisations and structures collectively commit to Open Strike, and call for our colleagues in the cultural sector to join us.” The doors of these spaces are in-between reopening and closing, as a second lockdown due to COVID-19 is taking place in Lebanon, yet these organisations have kept chanting their message of solidarity and highlighting the artists of the country and its diaspora through social media and by virtual means.

The arts, the cultural sector are a strong element in any country’s economy and could help regenerate it. Art is a trade, a soft power, it may create jobs, be a tool, a healer, an essence, a need and a way to build bridges amongst communities, areas and countries.                                                                         

Art can transform economies. Around the world, with automation taking over certain jobs - even traditional creative ones - art and craft are able to provide not just a creative outlet for humanity but an economic one too by developing new types of creative jobs or sustaining traditional ones.                            Throughout Lebanon, several institutions, foundations and galleries, through civil society created jobs via the arts. Finding economic channels to sustain themselves and starting creative structures, through their own initiatives and means or if a non-profit through either private or foreign funding. However, in order for that to have been and be sustainable, and for the arts to be available to all of society and classes, the arts need/ed much more support from the state. Without favouritism, elitism, clientelism and without sectarian alliances but because of the talent. When a large section of the community are creative, pushing that element forward should be a strong feature of any government. 

So what does that mean for how a country measures its value or GDP-should we start to include the cultural value in relation to measure a society's happiness and thus not just financial cultural value? How do we even begin to measure that? Perhaps through the health system-measuring if a society’s anxieties are going down or not. Art could definitely help with that aspect in life. 

In the case of Lebanon with the national currency, the Lebanese Lira plummeting, with its value hitting rock bottom, creativity was a weapon to raise concerns. In the early days of the revolution, one of the slogans on the protest banners, was, “Happiest Depressed People You'll Ever Meet.”  But is that truly so? Could the creative element in Lebanon have helped the Lebanese always feel upbeat even when war was knocking at their door? Could creativity have shielded or help heal any trauma felt by citizens, a trauma not just of the after war, but from a product of daily life? A trauma left unspoken in the country, and swept under a carpet, resulting in history being washed over, maybe even propelling a collective amnesia, and resulting in an enforced undesirable way of living on its civil society. Exporting Lebanon’’s creativity throughout the years, rendered a strong image for the country of culture and art. With the internet and social media opening the door to a global cultural entity and a way for different arts to connect rapidly, recent images of art and concerns spread fast.

On Social Media, we like, like, like… even when we don’t like, we like in support of our dislike
Should there be a throwback hashtag. Throwback to what?
Go way back? Go back to where? The Cedar Revolution from 15 years ago, that for a brief moment saw hope lifted to a higher playing field, bringing out art then too, with the opening of Gallery Sfeir-Semler in 2005, artist Alfred Tarazi’s Weeping Walls an ongoing documentation of the walls of Beirut which he begun in 2005, and graffiti art surfacing on Lebanon’s walls, the country felt as though it was resurrecting.                                                         

Go back still. To The Civil War or what some refer to as a Proxy War? The so called Peace Treaty that retained the status quo of the war years and that may have propelled a sort of general amnesia, almost paralleling the “as if” theory of Lisa Wedeen on her study of Syria.                                                 No, no, go way back… ah yes to Lebanon’s golden era. Wait but what if you weren’t part of the ‘elite’ back then? So ok let’s not mention that - actually that’s where we should go back to, to that moment where no one said anything, where money just built randomly over the land and over its history.            With every parent’s tear for their lost loved one ignored. No sorrys. No explanation. Can the country heal its wounds if it has yet to bury its past, or acknowledge the bodies lost for us to even be able to discuss art, the notion of freedom of expression, and independence (in reference to all perspectives of the history of Lebanon, and to all people lost throughout the years, before, during and after the country’s wars and the recent protests), can the country move forward if it doesn’t aim to find or at least search for its missing citizens? After all what is the history of the Civil War of Lebanon? And where are we now? 

“You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon”. This is the title of a short poem/story written by Khalil Gibran after WWI. The title’s meaning seems to unfortunately always finds its place when discussion around Lebanon occurs, and also seems fitting in the current climate. Not to be thought of or explained within a sectarian implication and division, as many may want to put forth, but within the notion of a divided outlook for the country.                     

Sectarianism is a tool and an image used by many in power. Though it does exist, as politics and geographical areas were and are still referred to by some, with religious references, many reject this division and it is not necessarily more of a division then either gender or social class - with many sitting at the top of the ladder hating each other politically, yet still finding a way to socialise. This is true in most countries, and for most social structures, its civil society and its Diaspora, but in Lebanon if you speak the words power does not want to hear, then....well please refer to the the country's histories here.    Artist Marwan Rechmaoui’s 'Beirut Caoutchouc' showcases the city Beirut cut into different segments representing municipal sectors, but not marked with divisions of politics or sectarianism that once may have marked the city. 'Beirut Caoutchouc' puts forth the resilience of a city marked by war and natural disasters, seeking to make its viewer reflect on the urban planning of Beirut and thus question one's personal relationship to the city. 

A personal relationship towards a country is also a personal perspective, and thus Lebanon comes with several perspectives. The history of Lebanon seems to stop in school textbooks after 1943, sidestepping the Civil War. How then to bring forth those historical perspectives and create if not a common history, then one that accepts all truths, and not a truth of the past? Taking that leap may also have to look to art, as art has tried to step in where politics can’t.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Artist Sirine Fattouh showcases in her art performance of “A History of Lebanon”, certain historical narratives. She takes from different Lebanese artists and filmmakers recordings of vital testimonies from civilians that had suffered the consequences of the civil war, and in turn,  by identifying from each of those artists or filmmakers a common experience, she creates a narrative of the Lebanese wars and post-war period.                                                 

Artist Walid Raad works between fiction and the non-fiction, capturing history from images and words and bringing forth the notion of its limits in doing so. The Atlas Group archives (by Walid Raad) are an alternative to the one historical narrative, looking more towards the perception of memory and lived experience in relaying historical notions.                                                                                                                                                                               

Artist Alfred Tarazi’s work “A Nation’s Inflation” covers Lebanon’s contemporary history with money bills as a backdrop to the historical images.       

Utilising the art of performance are the NGO group, Fighters for Peace, who are an organisation that aim to bring, build or maintain peace amongst the different communities in Lebanon. Through narratives, storytelling, theatre and improvisation, they bring people together, relaying histories, voices and experiences. 

Looking at history, we do see that with every Revolution, often dark days follow…but so do better days after that. And the bullet holes in buildings all over the Lebanon, those cracks as Leonard Cohen once said, they can let the light come in and come out from people’s hearts onto the artistic landscape. 

History has found it difficult to unravel itself, with the country having being invaded with political posters. To compensate, graffiti and street artists such as Ashekman and Halwani painted the walls of Lebanon with Lebanese and Arabic cultural figures such as Fayrouz or Khalil Gibran in lieu of the images of politicians on posters plastered around the country. This is the power of art, it and its cultural fighters, needs to be recognised.  

In Lucien Bourjeily's film Heaven without People, around the dinner table, one of the film’s characters refers to the thought that Khalil Gibran would not have been famous had he stayed in Lebanon. 
It may be said, that Lebanese outside the realm of community, have been seen or accused each other of being individualistic in their success.
Another perhaps.
Yet what is apparent, is a new generation of young and old coming together helping each other out, standing hand in hand for better times and supporting each other. Amongst the thorns that the country are faced with, it’s beautiful to see roses bloom in the direction of togetherness and unity. 

The cedars are live-streaming, they cannot be policed, and the wind is blowing their cries over and over and over again. 
All can see the attempts to silence. 
Silence, silence, silence. 
But the beat goes on. 
The beat of the drum, the beat of the loud speaker, the beat of the streets, the beat of the posts, the beat of the computer’s keyboard, the beat of society, the beat of hope. 
How do the beats answer. 
They answer with art.
They answer with heart.

Lebanon is often referred to as the land of art, fashion, glamour, creativity, nightlight, music, good food, humous, kibbeh, taboulé, maanouché, business savviness, entrepreneurship, doctors, hospitality, generosity and warmth. All these are true. Despite the war torn buildings, the lack of electricity, lack of infrastructure, it was/is the land of sunsets, sun-bliss, culture, art, pumping sounds, restaurants, education, landscapes and debate. 
It was/is and still will be. Still can be.  

From the land of contradictions, of tradition and modernity, of stirring pots, and eventually banging pots, where its cliché's of melting pot, do run true, melting into oblivion and escapism has reverted to reaching boiling point. But sometimes when the tears keep flowing, they end up into a communal pond of anger, fear, sadness, and then activism.

Alongside several NGO’s, the communities in Lebanon and its diaspora have gathered together and brought out several initiatives to help stop the famine invading the country.

Heartbreaking news of suicides spreading, the economic crisis, hyperinflation, banks shutting their doors on people’s savings, stores closing, famine, bread-lines, electricity cuts, dignity taken, freedom of speech being eradicated, the press being silenced, and hospitals not able to function properly, are storing up in people’s lives, hearts, on what’s app groups and twitter posts. Amongst the heartbreaking news that is currently engulfing the country, civil society has once again, come together to create solutions to the many problems.

Tawlet restaurant, a branch of Souk el Tayeb amongst other groups and organisations, pitched tents in Downtown Beirut providing food for many people during the protests. The NGO’S Beit el Baraka and Lebanese Food Bank, have build organisations in the hope to eradicate hunger and finding long term solutions to the situation through agricultural ways or preventing food waste. Organisations such as Impact Lebanon are gathering the Lebanese diaspora together to help their home country, and start initiatives such as DikkéniEnvironment Academy, Clothes Drive and the MIT Challenge. 

There are too many brave people, brilliant artists to have mentioned throughout this piece, many wonderful organisations. Put together in this link are some of the NGO’s to donate and help Lebanon, art initiatives and organisation raising funds for the country and links to artists from or living in Lebanon and its diaspora.
If you can’t donate, then please talk about the arts that come out of the country. Lebanon is home to many artists that come from all over the world to seek the diverse cultures that have made, for good or bad, the country what it is.

Lebanon’s wave of art and culture have splashed its waters onto shores of resistance, painted its message across banners and walls, sang, laughed, cried, drew, posted through the electronic wires, shared stories and concerns.

Waves back and forth crushing through the pages of history, drawing towards and onto lines of hope. With the country having faced turmoil, wars, unrest and social issues, through it all, the country’s civil society and Lebanon’s creativity still shone and still shines.


Follow this link for continuation with details of NGO's, art initiatives and artists