Looking the Ghosts of the Past in the Face

It is characteristic of many post-war societies that people either genuinely forget or deliberately suppress memories of what went on during the war and either yearn for the peaceful pre-war days or focus on a bright new future. A number of Lebanese artists exhibiting at Contemparabia 2010 in Beirut, however, are trying to buck this trend and jog people's memories of what went on during the country's civil war. Charlotte Bank reports

Painting by Alfred Tarazi/Contemparabia 2010 (photo: Charlotte Bank)
The works of the artist Alfred Tarazi challenge beholders to examine their personal perceptions of the history of the city and their memories of the Lebanese civil war

​​ In 2006 the Beirut artist Lamia Joreige wrote the following about her work: "History constantly escapes us; we only have its fragments, captured in words, images, and memories. My work over the past ten years has been an attempt to come to grips with this elusiveness and how our rearrangements and reinterpretations of these fragments border on fiction."

Her video Here and Perhaps Elsewhere (2003) is a reflection on personal interpretations of history and the connection with the urban environment.

The artist asked people along the former Green Line what memories they personally associate with the site. The majority of those asked said that they could not remember any events in particular. Yet many people were kidnapped here during the civil war.

Forgetfulness or suppression?

This genuine forgetting or deliberate suppression of memory seems to be characteristic of a large part of Lebanese society today, as is the case in many post-war societies. There are dangers inherent in a failure to come to terms properly with the past, and this is a constantly recurring theme in the work of contemporary Lebanese artists, who advocate a personal analysis of "the events" – the term people often use to refer to Lebanon's civil war.

The traces of the fifteen-year conflict are still clearly visible in many parts of the city, even though an uncontrolled building boom is attempting to obliterate every memory and give the city a new, sophisticated, history-free gloss.

Beirut Central District is particularly affected. Yet there is a building here that defies this process – one that has developed into a centre for alternative art and culture despite being under threat of demolition and despite being damaged by bullet-holes and general neglect.

Lebanese art in a Lebanese icon

As part of this year's Contemparabia events, which provided a tour of new art and design in the Arab world and which was primarily aimed at a well-heeled international audience, ten Beirut galleries presented an exhibition in the City Center Dome showcasing the work of 35 contemporary Lebanese artists, entitled Lebanon: Contemporary Art.

Beirut's Dome (photo: Charlotte Bank)
The Dome has almost iconic significance for the Lebanese capital: it symbolizes the hopes that were destroyed in the civil war and is a very fitting setting for a reappraisal of the city's recent history through art

​​The Dome (also called "saboun" – soap – or "the egg" on account of its distinctive shape) is a shopping centre and cinema complex that was built in 1970 and designed by the Lebanese architect Joseph Philippe Karam. It has almost iconic significance for the Lebanese capital. As an example of daring, modernistic architecture, it symbolizes the hopes that were destroyed in the civil war. As one of the few surviving buildings in the city centre from the pre-war period it is now also a memorial and anti-war monument.

Two of the exhibited artists refer in their work to the effects of the war on the city and the problems in accounting for history – and of repressing it.

Confronting the past

The artist and cultural activist Alfred Tarazi is working on several large projects in which he engages critically with the self-chosen amnesia of his homeland and reminds us of the senseless sacrifices and horror of the civil war. In his "Silent Square" initiative, with which he proposes an anti-war monument for Martyr's Square in the centre of town, he criticizes what he calls the "glorification of the martyr".

In large format photo collages, a selection of which are on display in the exhibition, the artist superimposes black-and-white photos from the civil war period onto old postcards from before the civil war, or new photos of streets and cityscapes. Armed women and children, distraught, screaming civilians, soldiers and victims are all a stark contrast to the postcards with idyllic views of the country's tourist attractions, or glitzy images of Beirut today. In this way these works expose the distorted historical interpretations of those who take refuge in a nostalgic yearning for the supposedly better "good old days" before the war, and who are not prepared to look the ghosts of the past in the face.

The history of the Dome connects the surrounding city and the visitors' memories evoked by these works. These memories emphasize the significance of the building as a place of artistic examination of the city's recent history.

Journey into memory

Installation by Salah Saouli/Contemparabia 2010 (photo: Charlotte Bank)
Multiple layers of memories: Salah Saouli's Labyrinth is one of the works on display at Contemparabia 2010

​​ The many-layered nature of historical memory is also central to Salah Saouli's installation The Labyrinth, which consists of 40 transparent sheets that hang from the ceiling to create a labyrinth. The sheets are printed with photographs: historical images, reproductions of old postcards, and photographs taken by the artist during the war alternate with portraits of people who disappeared during the war and who remain missing. Wandering through the exhibition, the visitor is confronted with a continuous stream of transparent and translucent images.

The constellation of the images alters with each step taken through the installation, and with each angle from which they are observed. They keep reappearing in new forms, a multi-layered fluctuation between focussed and unfocussed, fragmentary and whole.

The installation works like a palimpsest that reflects the visitor's own shards of memory, along the borderline between the real and the imaginary. The visitor steps out of the role of passive observer and is drawn into a sort of archaeological process; they are invited to examine their own perceptions of the history of the city. In so doing, the work offers them the chance to take a journey through their own mental landscapes.

In their works, Salah Saouli and Alfred Tarazi play with the juxtaposition of past and present, historical testimonies and contemporary photos, reality and imagination. In doing so they subtly challenge each visitor to face up to his or her own history and experiences. The context within which these works are exhibited could scarcely have been better chosen. The Dome, with its own particular history, also invites this kind of reflection, and as such is a particularly appropriate venue for this exhibition.

Charlotte Bank

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Edited by Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de


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