Art of war: Serwan Baran’s ‘raw, direct’ take on armed combat

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Serwan Baran's 'The Last General.' (Supplied)
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Serwan Baran's 'The Last Meal.' (Supplied)
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Serwan Baran. (Supplied)
Updated 01 July 2019
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Art of war: Serwan Baran’s ‘raw, direct’ take on armed combat

  • Inside ‘Fatherland,’ Iraq’s exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale
  • “I try to convey a specific idea — the drama experienced by a person who lived 45 years of his life in a continuous war.”

DUBAI: At the Venice Biennale this year, the Pavilion of Iraq showcases a topical solo exhibition, “Fatherland,” in which two poignant works of art evoke the atrocities of war. The site-specific works were created by Kurdish-Iraqi artist, and former soldier, Serwan Baran.

The work was commissioned by Baghdad’s Ruya Foundation, which was co-founded in 2012 by a number of Iraq-born individuals, including Iraqi-Lebanese historian and author Tamara Chalabi, who co-curated the exhibition.

“We are interested in, and concerned about, the state of culture in Iraq in the absence of any proper civil society or serious support and sustenance to be able to culturally and artistically create a bridge between Iraq and the world,” Chalabi told Arab News. “There’s been this cultural isolation that’s been going on for decades. People don’t have access to Iraq, but also artists from inside are doing their own thing without any kind of knowledge or access to what’s going on outside — in a formalist way, in a way that allows them to be part of a larger conversation, such as the Venice Biennale.”

Although the theme of the exhibition is universal, it is deeply personal too. The Beirut-based artist became accustomed to brutal war growing up in Iraq, and was once employed to document ‘the victories of the Iraqi army’ for propaganda purposes. Of the body of work he developed for the pavilion, Baran said: “I try to convey a specific idea — the drama experienced by a person who lived 45 years of his life in a continuous war.”

Chalabi says she thought “long and hard” about whose work should be shown in Venice, finally settling on Serwan “because of his skill as a painter and the subject matter. I think he’s one of the few artists of his generation that really addresses the reality of this history and heritage in a very raw and direct way.”

He certainly does. “The Last Meal” is a ceiling-high, predominantly green- and brown-toned painting that shows a bird’s eye view of piles of bodies — soldiers killed while eating — into which Baran incorporated paint-covered plates containing scraps of bread and strips of items from deceased soldiers’ uniforms  — donated to the artist by bereaved families.

The piece is monumental in both scale and emotion, leaving a lasting impression. It is reminiscent of timeless war-themed images including Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Francisco Goya’s “Third of May,” and even John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed”.  

“The Last General,” meanwhile, is a life-size sculpture — molded in clay and cast in fiberglass — of a skeleton-like army general laying in a traditional boat known as a ‘mashhof,’ a metaphorical and classical reference to sailing into the underworld.

The officer’s body is half covered in medals, while the other half is decaying — emphasizing the double-edged sword of warfare.

“What’s very telling about the work is the fact that it’s on the floor and when you look at it, it’s almost like you’re stumbling on a sarcophagus in a museum — you don’t get so emotional as it happened so long ago. And by doing that, it gives you a sense of distance from the piece and a philosophical reflection on the futility of the whole story,” said Chalabi.

Just as the works of art are thought provoking, so is the title, as Chalabi explained.

“‘Fatherland’ is a particular iteration of the term ‘Al watan’ in Arabic, which could also be translated to ‘motherland,’ ‘country’ and so on. But it is specifically ‘Fatherland’ because it is fathers and patriarchs that have been sending their children to die in the name of the fatherland, and the idea of the punishing figure who demands even your life for the sake of an ideological ego,” she said. “At the end of the day, what (good) is the fatherland if all you’re asked to do is die?”


Tourism chiefs salute fashion designer for holding son’s wedding in Lebanon

Elie Jr. and Christina Mourad. (Social media)
Updated 23 July 2019
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Tourism chiefs salute fashion designer for holding son’s wedding in Lebanon

  • The tourism leader said the situation was to do with Lebanese ego, but he emphasized that wedding parties held in Lebanon could be better than those staged abroad on all levels

BEIRUT: Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab has been hailed by tourism chiefs for staging his son’s lavish wedding reception on home turf.
The influential Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night-Clubs and Pastries in Lebanon saluted Saab “for holding the wedding party of his son, Elie Jr., and the Lebanese bride, Christina Mourad, in Lebanon instead of abroad, as do tens of Lebanese leaders and lords.
“Holding wedding parties abroad has deprived the tourism sector as well as other sectors in Lebanon of important revenues that can revive the national economy,” the syndicate said.
The nonprofit body that represents restaurateurs, added that the glittering event had “turned the country into a huge wedding attended by more than 3,000 guests from inside and outside Lebanon.
“People shared their joy on social media, communicating Lebanon’s image of civilization and tourism to the world. This wedding filled Lebanese hotels, restaurants and nightclubs and stirred the economic cycle for more than 10 days before and after the wedding. We salute the man who loves peace and Lebanon a thousand times.”
Jean Abboud, president of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agents in Lebanon (ATTAL), told Arab News: “The syndicate’s stance comes in response to a phenomenon that emerged a few years ago. Distinguished people have been holding lavish weddings for their children abroad, where they spend millions of dollars. This has not only been done by politicians, but also businessmen and senior employees, as if it has become a trend or an added value.”
The tourism leader said the situation was to do with Lebanese ego, but he emphasized that wedding parties held in Lebanon could be better than those staged abroad on all levels. “We have outstanding wedding planners who get employed to plan weddings abroad,” he added.
Abboud pointed out that the tourist season in Lebanon this year had so far been promising with the number of visitors from GCC countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, up on 2018 figures. He added that the 2019 draft budget approved by Parliament last week had not put “any burdens on the tourism sector.”
Chairman of the Hotel Owners Association in Lebanon, Pierre Al-Ashkar, estimated the cost of wedding parties held by Lebanese people abroad to be around $400 million, including hotel accommodation, purchases and transportation, in addition to the expenses of the wedding itself.
He said: “There is no longer a difference between politicians and businessmen who choose to hold their children’s wedding parties abroad. It is true that these weddings are no more than a few hundred, but their expenses are huge and, therefore, deprive Lebanon of this money.”
Al-Ashkar pointed out that the number of tourists choosing Lebanon this summer had risen, highlighting a significant 30 percent increase in the proportion of visitors from Europe.
“However, the number of tourists from GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, has not been as we had wished,” he added.
“Maybe this is because these tourists, who have not been visiting Lebanon for five to seven years, now have business in other countries or investments in tourist places outside of Lebanon, especially as some countries now offer incentives to attract tourists carrying certain passports and residence permits.”