Lebanon - It's Always Been

Contemporary Artists from Lebanon

Lebanon - It's Always Been (2017) by Contemporary Artists from LebanonImago Mundi

My Lebanon 

During the civil war in Lebanon, from 1975 to 1990, art was for many a means of escaping the horrors of reality. Today, despite the political difficulties, art is a tool for cultural and social reconstruction.

Set in an uncomfortable position between Israel and Syria, destined to play an inescapable role as the frontline between the Arab and Jewish worlds, Lebanon has a very tormented past, from French colonial domination to the 1958 coup, from civil war to the political instability of the turn of the century and the conflict with Israel in the summer of 2006.

This long series of attacks, internal conflicts and power games have nonetheless failed to break the pride and vitality of a people who have always felt themselves to be midway between East and West, pervaded by ancient Christianity and moderate Islam. Open to trade with the world from the time of the Phoenicians, and then through the Italian maritime republics that had numerous trading centres here. 

Untitled, Abdul Rahman Katanani, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Untitled (2017) by Abdul Rahman Katanani

It was from these coasts that the Phoenician merchants began their journeys, introducing the peoples of the Mediterranean to purple pigment and glass, the first phonetic alphabet and sea salt extraction, tuna fishing and robust shipbuilding techniques, suitable for freight transport. The Phoenicians set sail from their cities built close to the Jabal Lubnān (Mount Lebanon) mountain range that crosses the country from north to south: they navigated the Mediterranean to connect places and cultures, from Cyprus to Egypt, from Greece to the Maghreb, from Malta to Sicily, from Sardinia to the Balearic Islands.

Everyday, Carlo Massoud, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Everyday (2017) by Carlo Massoud

This familiarity in interacting with Westerners has continued ever since, as has coexistence between cultures and religions of different origins, a climate of tolerance and the rejection of fanaticism that characterizes the Lebanese. Known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” thanks to a degree of internal wealth and high levels of education, Lebanon has never lost these qualities of civilization, not even in the darkest years of the civil war. Unlike other Middle Eastern countries, more or less devout and closed to the West, Lebanon has also maintained a robust internal secular perspective. Over the course of centuries and civilizations, art has also left indelible traces. Like the imposing relics of Tyre – where Jupiter, disguised as a bull, abducted a proud princess named Europa – whose archaeological site, paved with mosaics, boasting grand porticoes, an imposing triumphal arch and a hippodrome that could host up to twenty thousand spectators, has received UNESCO recognition.

Crucial Back Lines (extended), Christopher Rizkallah, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Crucial Back Lines (extended) (2017) by Christopher Rizkallah

Then there are Sidon, with its marble sarcophagi undoubtedly created by Greek sculptors, and Byblos, perhaps the oldest city in the history of humanity: excavations of the ancient city reveal examples of Egyptian culture and, at the same time, epitomize Phoenician history before the conquest of Alexander the Great in 333 BC. It is known as the cradle of the alphabet because it is here that the sarcophagus of King Ahiram was discovered, bearing the earliest known inscription in the Phoenician language. At Baalbek, in the Beqaa valley, the great temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus, dating to the first and third centuries AD, reveal the wealth of the city and the degree to which it had absorbed Roman classical culture.

Towering Over Your Head, Ghassan Zard, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Towering Over Your Head (2017)
by Ghassan Zard

Lebanon also seems to have been tailor-made for lovers of wild and unspoilt nature: the ancient cedar forests that centuries ago occupied the slopes of Jabal Lubnān have been transformed into protected natural oases including Jaj, Tannourine, Ehden, Barouk and Maasser El Chouf, where until late spring is not uncommon to find snow (the Lebanese come here to ski).

For You, Greta Naufal, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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For You (2016) by Greta Naufal

In the Byblos hinterland, the Jabal Moussa Reserve is an area of more than 6,000 hectares that has become part of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Project, where nature and history meet. Amid the flight of birds of prey and migratory birds, an imposing stairway built by Roman legionaries, historic houses, water mills and ancient cisterns emerge from paths that become lost among the trees of a dense forest, extending all the way to the tumultuous waters of the Adonis River. The cosmopolitan and tolerant capital Beirut has rightly earned a place among the New7Wonders Cities, the exclusive club of the most beautiful cities in the world. Western and Arab customs mingle indiscriminately: suqs and nightclubs, Turkish baths and skyscrapers, mosques and sports cars, hijabs and mini skirts.

Providence, Himmelfahrt, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Providence (2017) by Himmelfahr

But Beirut – “clinging to life as only those who fear a return to war at any moment can”, in the words of the Italian writer Paolo Rumiz – is also the capital of artists and designers, walkers and joggers who peacefully occupy the Corniche, the seaside promenade, art and architecture enthusiasts who can find here important museums and an array of architecture designed by the likes of Zaha Hadid. The National Museum – in 2016 a new wing opened with funding from the Italian Foreign Ministry’s International Cooperation Office – exhibits a prestigious collection of examples of funerary art, from Phoenician anthropomorphic sarcophagi to the mummies found in the northern Lebanese mountains and Roman tombs. Something of a paradox: a celebration of the life and brotherhood of peoples through an artistic account of death.

Stretched Paint, Jacques Vartabedian, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Stretched Paint (2017) by Jacques Vartabedian

Particularly worthy of note is the display of Roman frescoes from the Tomb of Tyre, discovered in 1937 in Burj el-Shemali and rebuilt in 1939 in the museum, where they suffered serious damage due to the long civil war. The frescoes, which illustrate the legend of Achilles, in which Hector’s remains are returned to his father Priam and the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, were also restored with Italian funding in 2009. In Lebanon, art has also maintained a secular perspective over time, open to other cultures and their trends, in a complete departure from Islamic iconoclasm. As such, its art has been influenced by European movements, acquainted with the avant-gardes, modernism and contemporary trends.

Barque, Jean Pierre Watchi, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Barque (2016)
by Jean Pierre Watchi

After long years in which Lebanese art was mainly supported by local collectors, today its art is experiencing a period of expansion in the world, confirmation of the importance this nation has always placed on art and on culture in general.

An After-Taste of Ginger, Omar Khouri, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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An After-Taste of Ginger (2017) by Omar Khouri

In 1962 the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome hosted a Lebanese Contemporary Art show that was very well received and more recently, in April 2016, Bonhams in London was the first ever auction house to hold a sale of Lebanese art, with a total 175 lots. Today, Beirut has dozens of art galleries, focussed on promoting the artists they represent abroad. In recent years museums and foundations dedicated to Middle Eastern culture in general and Lebanese culture in particular have sprung up; spaces of knowledge and reflection where art can be created and discussed. Among them, for example, is the Aïshti Foundation, which brings together in a single space at Jal el Dib, near Beirut, contemporary art, fashion and public education. It is housed in a building designed by the Ghanaian British architect David Adjaye, which, like a spacecraft, projects itself to the future.

Remaking the City, Randa Mirza, 2011, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Remaking the City (2011) by Randa Mirza

The Dar El-Nimer Foundation, in turn, houses Islamic art and a collection of Palestinian objects and artworks. It is affiliated with the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, on the West Bank, designed by the Dublin-based architects Heneghan Peng, and the first museum of its kind dedicated to Palestinian culture and history. This particularly dynamic landscape also comprises the annual Beirut Art Fair, considered the main showcase for the art of the so-called MENASA area, which includes the Middle East, North Africa and South East Asia.

Untitled, Woman, Rasha Kahil, 2017, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Untitled, Woman (2017) by Rasha Kahil

In the light of such a wealth of artistic and cultural activity, the works of art in this catalogue represent a wide-ranging overview of today’s Lebanese artists. “The selection of the 110 artists whose works are featured – write Amar A. Zahr and Nathalie Ackawi in their introduction – allows for an accurate distinction in trends, focus, and artistic techniques.” I completely agree that the “participating artists pushed the boundaries implied by ‘a book about contemporary art in Lebanon’ and made it more personal. Shifting from their usual practice, artists also took this project as a challenge and a starting point to break away from an aesthetic or systematic way of creating.”

Qaf, Samir Sayegh, 2016, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Qaf (2016)
by Samir Sayegh

The result of their explorations is a fascinating tribute to the universal power of art. Once again, I would like to draw on the words of the poet Gibran Khalil Gibran: “These are the children of Lebanon; they are the lamps that cannot be snuffed by the wind and the salt which remains unspoiled through the ages. They are the ones who are steadily moving toward perfection, beauty, and truth.”

Luciano Benetton

The Artist’s Nose, Sirine Fattouh, 2012, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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The Artist’s Nose (2012)
by Sirine Fattouh

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