Beirut was an exhibition curated by Bariaa Mourad and shown during summer 2011 at Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna – Austria. It was the first issue of an itinerating exhibition cycle dedicated to the Lebanese capital exploring its creative potential as well as featuring various Lebanese artists’ work and subjects relating to Lebanon’s critical position in the world. Being presented at different international venues, its succeeding show Beirut II will now reach its next stop at the Contemporary Art Platform in Kuwait.
The Lebanese capital, which is often described as “the Paris of the Middle East,” is a city characterized by repeated destruction, restructuring, and reconstruction in social, economic, and historical terms and evincing a complex dynamic that may definitely be regarded as unique. The city’s special charm and its unmistakable appeal are fueled by the diversity of its population, which comprises almost twenty different religious and ethnic groups. Feudal thinking, hierarchies, and overlapping affiliations to various social groups and diverse family clans are of great importance in Lebanon: they determine the country’s socioeconomic stratification and social interactions. These influences also come to bear on the protagonists of cultural life who find their source of inspiration in this complexity and embark on critical reflections on this fragile balance of powers. Rania Stephan provides an example for this: marginalized urbanites are given a chance to speak their mind and questioned about their living conditions and dreams in her documentary-like video works.
Historically speaking, Modernism’s spirit of awakening made itself felt in Beirut around the same time as in Europe. It not only brought architectural and technological innovations, but also made the city’s intelligentsia – also in regard to the European Jews’ settlement in Palestine of which they took a partly favorable, partly skeptical view – hope for social change with often a socialist bias. The years of transnational Nasserism saw a revival of these ideas which have exercised their influence on intellectuals in Lebanon to this day.
Within this complex social mosaic, many Lebanese artists and intellectuals are, after countless conflicts, still committed to a sociocritical concept of art today; this understanding is bound to a milieu of tolerance and exchange and, stylistically speaking, enters a symbiosis with the narrative tradition, that brings back memories of the city’s prewar grandeur. As the video installation Réminiscences Beyrouthines directed by Bariaa Mourad, showing textual memory fragments by Najla Said, daughter of renowned cultural theorist Edward, in an ambivalent and polysemic atmosphere together with Tanya Traboulsi’s oneiric video-photography and a sound design by Edwin Daou. A work that evokes the memories of civil war and emigration so typical for the generation of Lebanese born between the 50s and 70s. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige asked former political prisoners how it was possible to survive through vernacular art, in an environment of sheer injustice and human-rights-defying extreme situations – as described in their documentary film Khiam.
Besides exploring various social conflicts, the shown works deal with both the facets of the artists’ identities and the identity of a nation devastated by war constituting itself in a permanent dance on a volcano, epitomized in the virility of cliff divers jumping off Pigeons Rock in Randa Mirza’s photographies. The civil war from 1975 to 1990 and numerous armed conflicts have not only left deep traces on the cityscape, but also on Beirut’s inhabitants as Alfred Tarazi’s memorial paintings show. Conversations de Salon a feature realized by Daniele Arbid shows four nicely dressed ladies in an upper middle class living room who talk about fearful war sufferings and several other subjects in a strange tea party atmosphere, with a nonchalant casualness one could also talk about the weather. Lamia Joreige’s Full Moon summarizes a poetic quest for the almost too perfect beauty of the Beirut nights, where in every “day & night” environments doubtful and threatening events may occur at any moment …
Music has always been an important part of Lebanese culture reflected in Beirut’s music mix of traditional sounds and brazilian inspired jazz epitomized in the music of Fairuz and the Rahbani’s. In the last two decades, an internationally acclaimed experimental sound and music scene has developed in the city of Beirut mainly through the impetus of the Irtijal festival initiated by artists Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassin and Sharif Sehnaoui who are also present in the show with a sound-installation.
Further selected video and film works by artists Ali Cherri, Maher Abi Samra, Reine Mitri, or Rami El-Sabbagh give evidence of the struggles that are constantly flaring up and thematize the fears of the next detonating bombs, individual psychological conditions, coping mechanisms as well as the involved dominant powers’ geopolitical interests. The scope of the city’s excessive sprawl today still spans from exclusive building complexes along the subtropical Mediterranean coastline to bombed houses and silhouette-like facades riddled with bullets.
The emphasis of the show is on art-films and videos, where often women play a central role, focusing on the subjects of freedom, self-actualization, and equality under the difficult circumstances of permanent conflict. The present political situation in the Middle East lends the show its special topicality. Besides art work, the show also encompasses documentary picture material and texts on the history and development of the city.