Yazan Halwani unveils ‘The Memory Tree,’ commemorating Lebanon’s Great Famine

Updated 05 August 2018

Yazan Halwani unveils ‘The Memory Tree,’ commemorating Lebanon’s Great Famine

  • Halwani’s work has matured significantly since he first embraced calligraffiti in his teens
  • His aim is to help create an art scene — and market — in Lebanon that can flourish

DUBAI: “The most important aspect of art is that it pushes people to think, right?” asks the Lebanese artist Yazan Halwani. “To think critically.”
Halwani is walking through the streets of Beirut as he talks on the phone, posing questions and offering answers. The sound of the city — people, cars, industry — can be heard clearly in the background as he talks of individual and public narratives.
Originally a street artist, Halwani’s work has matured significantly since he first embraced calligraffiti in his teens (he is only 25 now), merging Arabic calligraphy with graffiti art. Back then he sought to solidify the link between the people of Beirut, their culture, and the Arabic language, creating popular murals of Fairouz, Asmahan, Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish and Ali Abdullah — a homeless man who used to live on Beirut’s Bliss Street. For Halwani, the true icons of Lebanese society were cultural or artistic, not political.
They still are, although his focus has recently shifted more toward ambitious public projects, which are few and far between in Lebanon. Of all his murals, it is the Eternal Sabah, painted across one entire side of the Assaf Building in Hamra, that is most strikingly visible.
Now he has embraced public sculpture for the first time, creating a permanent monument to the Great Famine of Lebanon. Standing eight meters high, made of painted steel, and weighing more than two tons, The Memory Tree — commissioned by the Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth and writer Ramzi Toufic Salame — commemorates the estimated 200,000 people who died in the famine between 1915 and 1918. It is the first memorial to ever be erected to the disaster.
The tree’s ‘leaves’ are actually Arabic calligraphy. It took Halwani (working alongside two metalworkers) a year-and-a-half to complete. It is an incredibly complex piece of work, with each leaf forming the words of revered writers contemporary with the famine, such as Tawfik Yusuf Awwad and Khalil Gibran, whose poem “Dead Are My People” was dedicated to the famine’s victims.
“I always have experimental projects in my studio, some of which are related to sculpture, but I’d never done anything close to this scale,” admits Halwani. “It was extremely difficult, but given that the visual language I used — the calligraphy, the way the composition is done, the colors — was quite in line with my murals and paintings, it felt at times like I was composing a multitude of two-dimensional surfaces.
“The calligraphy, however, was very different to what I used to do. When I started painting I wanted to break the traditional rules of Arabic calligraphy and I used it abstractly,” he continues. “Calligraphy used to be a pixel of a painting — I didn’t write anything, the meaning was in the image. In this monument, it’s more in line with the traditional use of Arabic calligraphy. It’s words and writings.”
Although there is a fluidity of visual language between Halwani’s murals and the sculpture, which was funded by the Central Bank of Lebanon and is located in a plaza on Damascus Road, the memorial is also instructive. It highlights a central problem: Lebanon does not do national monuments.
Lebanon seems to suffer from collective amnesia, much of it state-sponsored. There is no memorial to the civil war, for example, despite its immense impact on the country and its people. And the fact that it took 100 years to publicly acknowledge a famine that killed around half of the country’s population says a lot about public discourse.
“The main issue in Lebanon is that each person within their small group — whether that’s a sect, area or religion — has their own narrative,” says Halwani. “There’s no national conversation. This is why such a monument is so relevant. It creates a conversation that is honestly overdue.”
Conversations are important to Halwani. His older art sought to reclaim Beirut’s streets from the clutches of the city’s myriad political parties, triggering a debate around public space and the country’s sectarian political system. He views narratives relating to public memory as instrumental to both national reconciliation and identity, and is determined to democratize art in Lebanon. In short, his work is intensely political, even if not outrightly so.
“There has never been a Lebanon with institutions that function — a Lebanon that really cares about a long-term democratic project,” says Halwani. “This is something that needs to be addressed from the political side, the economic side, and the cultural side. This is why personally I do not adopt the stance of just being an artist. There are many roles to be played and I’m not exclusive to just the cultural side. Because at the end of the day, if you’re only an artist you become a victim of the existing power structure if you don’t have the financial independence and the mobility to escape it.”
The first time Halwani and I spoke was in 2015 while he was still studying computer and communication engineering at the American University of Beirut. Now he is weeks away from swapping Beirut for Harvard University and a master’s in business administration.
His aim is to help create an art scene — and market — in Lebanon that can flourish, one that is “for artists to have long-term careers purely focused on creating artwork that’s recognized on the international scene.”
“I started with graffiti, which is not the most intellectual or critically acclaimed art form,” he says. “But I think the most important thing that I’ve always done is try to find something that resonates. Something that’s contemporary. You need to get the feel of the people around you. So when you place an artwork in the street, you don’t look at how beautiful the artwork is, you look at how the people look at the artwork. I don’t necessarily see the object or the paint on the wall, but rather how it reflects with the people.
“This is why there are some artworks that are technically very bad, but as public artworks are really successful. The Fairouz mural, for example. Painting-wise, I’m ashamed of it. Yet it is the piece of work that resonates most with people, mainly because of where it is, how it integrates into the landscape around it, and because it’s Fairouz. But also because it was a spontaneous reaction to political posters being stuck on the walls of Beirut.”
The Fairouz mural is still clearly visible in Gemmayze, although a window has been built into it — a commercial decision that could be considered artistic vandalism.
It was not the first piece, and no doubt won’t be the last, of Halwani’s work to be damaged or defaced. During this year’s parliamentary elections the political campaign of Nadim Gemayel stuck posters over a mural of Khalil Gibran, an act that did the politician more harm than good. After a public outcry, the campaign issued an apology and Gemayel himself asked Halwani to repaint the mural. He refused.
“I find it extremely powerful that, because the people have a vision of how their public space needs to be, they have a reaction and want to protect a piece of artwork,” says Halwani. “The political campaign actually cleaned up the wall, although it’s a bit damaged. But I think it should stay damaged. Just so this narrative remains.”

Highlights: Next-gen designs from the Global Grad Show

The Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week 2018. (Arab News)
Updated 19 November 2018

Highlights: Next-gen designs from the Global Grad Show

  • The Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week showcased 150 innovative designs created by students from around the world
  • Designs ranged from high-tech solutions to simple objects

DUBAI: Highlights from the Global Grad Show at Dubai Design Week, which showcased 150 innovative and potentially life-changing designs created by students from around the world, ranging from high-tech scientific solutions to conceptually simple physical objects.

Ukranian designer Olga Zelenska says her work “focuses on simplicity, sustainability and aesthetics of design,” and “From Nowhere With Love” delivers on all three. It’s a set of biodegradable postcards, designed for “migrants and modern nomads” to allow them to take a piece of their homeland’s nature with them wherever they travel. The postcards contain seeds specific to the plant life of the country or area in which they are bought. Those seeds can then be planted wherever the buyer — or the recipient of the postcard — wishes. (We’re not sure they’re guaranteed to grow well, but you get the idea…)

Yara Ahmed Rady is a product design student at the German University in Cairo. Her GGS project “Dyslexia Learning Difficulty” is designed to help dyslexic children learn Arabic through a series of exercises that use conventional teaching techniques which Rady has transformed into educational games using digital technology and engaging all five senses, thereby, she wrote in her project description “offering alternative routes to literacy.”

One of the questions that GGS was attempting to answer this year was “How do we do more with less?” South Korean designer Yesul Jang, currently studying in Switzerland, came up with a product which addresses the needs of the ever-growing number of people living alone in small apartments or rented rooms in urban spaces. “Tiny Home Bed” is a raised bed with storage space — covered by a sliding fabric curtain allowing easier access than drawers — beneath. The frame is constructed of lightweight wood and is, Jang insists, “easy to construct.” Just as importantly, it’s not an eyesore.

After several years of working in the sportswear industry, London-based designer Jen Keane wanted to come up with a more sustainable way to make products. By combining digital and biological technology, she created a strong, lightweight, hybrid shoe that is made partly from bacteria. “I weave fibers into the shape and the bacteria grows around it,” Keane explained to Arab News. “It’s kind of a scaffold.” Keane added that she created the shoe in her kitchen at home. “I don’t have a lab,” she said. “I don’t have a [science] background. I learned how to do this by reading a lot, experimenting and talking to biologists. It’s totally doable.”

Sustainability also factored into Christian Hammer Juhl’s thinking when the Netherlands-based Danish designer was creating his inflatable furniture collection “10:01.” Made from dense foam material, the furniture can compress down to 10 percent of its original size (through a process similar to vacuum packing). So it’s not only ideal for modern transient lifestyles, but also means that transport from factory to retailer is more sustainable too.

Billed as “clothing that can save your life,” David Bursell’s “Tardigrade” is the jacket you’re going to want to be wearing when the zombie apocalypse hit. Or, you know, a more conventional kind of Armageddon (Bursell says it was “inspired by climate change and the increasingly extreme natural and social crises it will trigger”). “Tardigrade” can be transformed into a shelter, a shoulder bag, a hammock, and any number of other things. It’s detatchable pockets can be used to collect water and other material. A warning though: at the moment, the jacket aids survival for “three to seven days,” so you might want to invest in several if things get really bad.

“It’s flying lighting for urban safety,” designer Jiabao Li told Arab News about “Twinkle,” which she co-designed with fellow Harvard student Honghao Deng. Basically, flying drones clamp themselves to lampposts during the day to recharge their batteries, and at night they head to poorly lit neighborhoods. “They fly off to follow people around and provide sufficient lighting to guide their way. Like fireflies,” she explained. Both designers describe their creations as “living” creatures. “They’re curious animals,” said Deng. “We don’t think they should be owned. They should just be living around the place.” Li and Deng are currently talking to various governments trying to get permission for a trial run.

Developed by a team of students from the Art University of Isfahan, “Naji” is an ingenious product designed to provide assistance in times of severe flooding. In normal situations, the device — four rectangles constructed of ethylene vinyl acetate (“resilient and buoyant”) with holes in — forms part of the base of streetlights, and the designers claim it will fit into existing infrastructure without the need for additional construction. If an area floods, however, the device floats to the surface of the water and provides a place for people to sit safely in one of the squares, strap in and await rescue.

Another team project, this time from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, “Acorn” is designed, according to the team’s statement “to be entirely beneficial to the environment.” Lead designer Zhang Liye told Arab News that the project is specifically intended for use in desert cities like those in the Gulf “because the soil lacks minerals and nutrition.” “Acorn” is an easy-to-assemble biodegradable plant base made from compressed crop waste that you simply bury in soil so that it can provide that missing nutrition to your plant.

A great example of how designers at GGS tackled another question: “How can technology make us more human?” In other words, how can we make life easier for people in tough situations? “Sahayak” is designed for porters working on railway platforms in India, who traditionally carry luggage on their heads, which can create several long-term health issues. “Sahayak” is a backpack that transfers the weight of their loads from their heads to their shoulders and protects the spine. “The design uses an inexpensive torsion spring to distribute the load throughout the backpack’s frame, reducing the load borne by the user’s head and neck by 75 percent,” designer Risbagh Singh claimed in his GGS statement.