Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji: ‘Dreaming is a luxury these days’

Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji: ‘Dreaming is a luxury these days’
This artwork is by Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji. (Supplied)
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Updated 21 December 2020

Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji: ‘Dreaming is a luxury these days’

Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji: ‘Dreaming is a luxury these days’
  • The Lebanese artist discusses some of his favorite work and the struggle to find ‘the bright side of the sinister’

LONDON: As a young man, Lebanese artist Hanibal Srouji was forced to flee his homeland as the violence of the civil war took hold. Eventually, the siren call of his country lured him back home, only for him to become embroiled once again in its turbulence. “I chose to come back, but I don’t know how long I can last,” he tells Arab News. “I wake up every morning and ask myself ‘How far can I go today?’”

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The first time he left Beirut, it was in a hurry. His father, who worked for Aramco, made radio contact with a colleague in Cyprus who arranged for the family to escape on a cargo boat. “We just waited for the boat as Beirut was closed and Sidon was closed. We took what we could with us and we just disappeared. When I look at photographs of us from that time, we were in pretty bad shape,” he says. “Leaving Lebanon was very stressful. I didn’t even know where we were going.”




Hanibal Srouji is a Lebanese artist. (Supplied)

His first departure led to a new life in Montreal, Canada. He went on to teach in Canada, the US and France. In 2010 he returned to Beirut, where he now teaches at the Lebanese American University.

“When I came back here 10 years ago, the situation seemed a bit more stable. Then it became unstable. Economically, it’s crazy. We have three different values for the dollar. How can you do business or pay for something if you don’t know what the value is? Many of our students have left with their families in the last few months,” he says. “What does it mean to be making art in Lebanon or the Middle East today? You are trying to say something? About what? This is the main question I am faced with.”

Here, Srouji talks us through a selection of his most significant work.

‘Fireworks’ (2015)

The two side panels of this triptych are made with rust residue, watered and worked through. Eventually, this staining produces a slow burning process. The canvas is trying to breathe – taking the oxygen from the air and at the same time the iron is burning the canvas. It’s a twist: You have to breathe to be alive but being alive you are burning yourself. The slow agony is worse than immediate suffocation. But at the same time it is a hopeful movement of particles. They buzz in space and float free.

‘Fire 2’ (1996)

This was one of a series of pieces created in the Nineties where I was using direct fire on the canvas. It’s related to the civil war. The idea was that the raw cotton canvas was an extension of my skin. In Lebanon, at the time I made this, they were trying to erase all traces of the war. I felt that was going too far. People wanted to forget and move on, which is understandable, but at the same time we didn’t have the chance to mourn. This work was a deliberate act to speak of what had taken place and revive memory.

I was working with fire; sometimes burning holes into the canvas. The brown-edged textures are melted beeswax. Beeswax, in the old days, was also used to heal burns. Ash marks were made by burning items including personal papers onto the canvas. This piece is a balance — simultaneously healing and exposing the wounds.

‘Particule’ (1998)

Whatever the reason for a bullet hole in a wall, the indent can still harbor light, color, life… This is a statement made with bare canvas and patches of color. It is changing sorrow and violence into a hopeful pattern — looking for the bright side of the sinister.

‘Into the Clouds’ (2015)

In 2010 I came back to Lebanon after 35 years and I started this new series. I was questioning myself, thinking, “I don’t know who I am.” I started thinking about the moment I left the country on a boat all those years before. When you’re on the water looking back, you see water, land and sky. But if you’re standing on the shore you see land, sea and sky. The sequence is not the same. These paintings play with that idea. Also, in relation to myself: Am I in the water looking up or looking down from the clouds?

There’s also the idea of dreamers having their ‘head in the clouds.’ Dreaming is a luxury these days. For the young generation — with everything that’s happening — they don’t even have a chance to dream. It’s a dismal existence. Five years ago I was saying, “Let’s dream again.” I felt that hope was possible. “Into the Clouds” was a call to dream. But it’s becoming more and more difficult.

‘Uncertain Times’ (2014)

It’s a romantic, fictitious, futuristic landscape — a nice fluffy space. I am constantly talking about trying to breathe; to be as light as possible — to have some kind of hopeful aspiration. But it’s up and down — sometimes I am very positive and sometimes I just hit the wall. At the age of 62 I find myself feeling like, “Tomorrow you will start from zero again.” Teaching is like starting from zero with the new students coming; every year you get a new batch of teenagers that you want to put through the mill and make the best out of them. That’s where I’m at now — basically concentrating on education and trying to open horizons for these young generations.

‘Cloud’ (2013)

For this show, I started introducing neon lights into my work to pay homage to my uncles, who had a company that manufactured neon signs for ads. It was also a tribute to unknown artisans. They were the people who made Beirut a ‘light’ and very hip city in the Sixties. As a kid, going to downtown Beirut was like going to Times Square — lots of signs flashing on and off.

The Go-Between (1999)

This is one of a series of two-panel paintings. Here, one side shows a penetrating projectile and the other the wound — the resultant pathway, which I painted with my fingers. It’s talking symbolically about the bullet and its trajectory through flesh. Even violence can have its own aesthetic. Yet here, it is always in the sense of sublimating the horror. We go to great lengths in our society to protect ourselves from facing the reality of violence.

‘Twin Towers (Cages)’ (2006)

This is a detail from a series called Cages, about the Twin Towers. I was in New York 10 days before 9/11. I was associated with the Triangle Arts Association, situated on the 92nd floor of the left tower of the Twin Towers. When the explosion happened, I went crazy seeing what was happening on TV. Part of me exploded too. I felt the impact. The space just disappeared with all the work inside it — including some of my own. Fortunately, it was too early in the day for any of the artists to be present.

After 9/11 some of my friends in America didn’t want to talk to me anymore. They regarded me with suspicion. With the concept of the cage, you can ask are we closed inside or are we looking at an open space where we are free to fly?


Plans for movie on New Zealand mosque attacks draw criticism

Hollywood news outlet Deadline reported that Australian actor Rose Byrne (L) was set to play Ardern, with New Zealander Andrew Niccol (R) writing and directing. (AP/File Photos)
Hollywood news outlet Deadline reported that Australian actor Rose Byrne (L) was set to play Ardern, with New Zealander Andrew Niccol (R) writing and directing. (AP/File Photos)
Updated 12 June 2021

Plans for movie on New Zealand mosque attacks draw criticism

Hollywood news outlet Deadline reported that Australian actor Rose Byrne (L) was set to play Ardern, with New Zealander Andrew Niccol (R) writing and directing. (AP/File Photos)
  • The movie would be set in the days after the 2019 attacks in which 51 people were killed at two Christchurch mosques

WELLINGTON: Tentative plans for a movie that recounts the response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to a gunman's slaughter of Muslim worshippers drew criticism in New Zealand on Friday for not focusing on the victims of the attacks.
Hollywood news outlet Deadline reported that Australian actor Rose Byrne was set to play Ardern in the movie “They Are Us,” which was being shopped by New York-based FilmNation Entertainment to international buyers.
The movie would be set in the days after the 2019 attacks in which 51 people were killed at two Christchurch mosques.
Deadline said the movie would follow Ardern's response to the attacks and how people rallied behind her message of compassion and unity, and her successful call to ban the deadliest types of semiautomatic weapons.
The title of the movie comes from the words Ardern spoke in a landmark address soon after the attacks. At the time, Ardern was praised around the world for her response.
But many in New Zealand are raising concerns about the movie plans.
Aya Al-Umari, whose older brother Hussein was killed in the attacks, wrote on Twitter simply “Yeah nah,” a New Zealand phrase meaning “No.”
Abdigani Ali, a spokesperson for the Muslim Association of Canterbury, said the community recognized the story of the attacks needed to be told “but we would want to ensure that it’s done in an appropriate, authentic, and sensitive matter.”
Tina Ngata, an author and advocate, was more blunt, tweeting that the slaughter of Muslims should not be the backdrop for a film about "white woman strength. COME ON.”
Ardern’s office said in a brief statement that the prime minister and her government have no involvement with the movie.
Deadline reported that New Zealander Andrew Niccol would write and direct the project and that the script was developed in consultation with several members of the mosques affected by the tragedy.
Niccol said the film wasn't so much about the attacks but more the response.
“The film addresses our common humanity, which is why I think it will speak to people around the world," Niccol told Deadline. "It is an example of how we should respond when there’s an attack on our fellow human beings.”
Byrne's agents and FilmNation did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The report said the project would be filmed in New Zealand but did not say when.
Niccol is known for writing and directing “Gattaca” and writing “The Terminal" and “The Truman Show,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
Byrne is known for roles in “Spy” and “Bridesmaids.”


French star Omar Sy gives magical touch to season two of ‘Lupin’ on Netflix

French star Omar Sy gives magical touch to season two of ‘Lupin’ on Netflix
Omar Sy plays the artful protagonist Assane Diop (right). Netflix
Updated 12 June 2021

French star Omar Sy gives magical touch to season two of ‘Lupin’ on Netflix

French star Omar Sy gives magical touch to season two of ‘Lupin’ on Netflix

CHENNAI: The second season of Netflix’s “Lupin” is exhilarating, high on style and full of swagger. Its lead star Omar Sy, who plays protagonist Assane Diop, is a classy master of disguise and disappearance, modelled on the “gentleman burglar” Arsene Lupin, a fictional character created in 1905 by French novelist and short-story writer Maurice Leblanc. Loved to bits by international viewers — the French show’s first season entered Netflix’s Top 10 in most countries around the globe in 2021 — Lupin seems a good contemporary counter to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Season one, which premiered in January, had all the excitement to banish pandemic lockdown blues. Netflix

Season one, which premiered in January, had all the excitement to banish pandemic lockdown blues, beginning with a daring heist in the Louvre in Paris, going on to narrate the ups and downs of a Senegalese immigrant, who dies in prison after being falsely accused of a crime he never committed. 

His son, Assane, swears to clear his father’s name and take vengeance on the rich and nefarious aristocrat, Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), responsible for the tragedy. Director Louis Leterrier and creator George Kay left the season on a nail-biting cliff-hanger centering on Assane’s son, Raoul (Etan Simon), and his ex-partner Claire (Ludivine Sagnier). 

Director Louis Leterrier and creator George Kay left the season on a nail-biting cliff-hanger centering on Assane’s son and his ex-partner Claire. Netflix

The five-episode second season, with screenplay by François Uzan, takes off from where it left off, with whirlwind chases and a touching love story between Assane and his childhood sweetheart Juliette (Clotilde Hesme) on the banks of the Seine, and his emotional bonding with Raoul. 

The narrative is tightly edited and the episodes are knitted together seamlessly, taking us back and forth between Assane’s boyhood and adulthood. Mamadou Haidara, who plays Assane in his schooldays, is delightfully mischievous, and carries all the attributes of the adult “gentleman burglar.” A scene where he “borrows” an expensive violin to help a very young Juliette is moving. In fact, the one big difference between the two seasons is that the second is high on emotions, which makes it even more appealing. 

The five-episode second season, with screenplay by François Uzan, takes off from where it left off. Netflix

Shot in Paris, the city becomes a character itself. Warmly glowing during the day and twinkling brightly at night, it has irresistible romanticism. The grand finale leaves us craving a third season, and more of the brilliant lead character so wonderfully portrayed by Sy.

 


Model Shanina Shaik celebrates becoming a homeowner

Model Shanina Shaik celebrates becoming a homeowner
The model moved back to America in February. Instagram
Updated 12 June 2021

Model Shanina Shaik celebrates becoming a homeowner

Model Shanina Shaik celebrates becoming a homeowner

DUBAI: Part-Saudi model Shanina Shaik is officially a homeowner. The 30-year-old this week took to her Instagram Stories to share the exciting news that she just purchased a home in Hollywood, California.

She wrote: “I’m officially a homeowner!” alongside a trio of the emoji wearing a party hat and blowing a party horn.

“Thank you @deniserosnerhomes, the best real estate agent,” she captioned an image of herself posing in front of a kitchen island. “If you need a home, this is your gurl (sic),” she added.

Shaik moved back to the US from London, where she spent the majority of quarantine, in February.

Shaik purchased a home in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Instagram

The supermodel, who is of Saudi, Pakistani, Lithuanian and Australian descent, moved to London after more than a decade in the US.

In February, she obtained a visa to enter America, thanks to US Immigration Attorney Carlos Rosas who helped her and made “the unimaginable happen,” according to an Instagram post.

“Congratulations @shaninamshaik on becoming a homeowner — you were a dream to work with and I’m so lucky to call you (a) friend,” wrote Shaik’s real estate agent on Instagram, adding “now let’s get #Choppa back so he and #Penelope can have a playdate,” referring to Shaik’s pet dog who is still in the UK.

It appears that Shaik’s new home is not all the model has to celebrate as the Victoria’s Secret star is finally going to be reunited with her beloved French bulldog after months of trying to bring her furry friend home.

“I had a lot of issues with Choppa’s situation but at the end of the day I found out that Choppa is coming home tomorrow,” said Shaik in a video posted to her Stories. “And you’re going to see a really, really happy woman. I’m going to cry my eyes out when I see him so I’m going to keep you guys posted on that video,” she added.

Back in May, the part-Arab model took to social media to ask fans to help reunite her with her pet dog who was unable to undertake the trip with her across the Atlantic for reasons unknown.

She asked if any of her friends or followers are traveling to the US from the UK and would be able to help return her pet pooch home.

The model regularly takes to social media to gush about her dog and even set up an Instagram account for her canine companion, which she has had for several years.


A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
Updated 12 June 2021

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’
  • A spirited new anthology of poems and stories by Arab women down the ages overturns common expectations of gender 
  • ‘We Wrote in Symbols’ celebrates the literary works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage spanning five millenia

DUBAI: British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh hopes a new book featuring 75 stories of love and desire penned by Arab women will help pave the way for more female authors to emerge from the Middle East region.

The English-language anthology “We Wrote in Symbols,” edited by Dabbagh, was published in April this year, marking a literary first in showcasing the works of women from the region on subjects many might consider bold.

Spanning several millennia, the volume includes the works of classical poets, award-winning contemporary authors and emerging writers.

“It brings together a diverse range of voices who are writers in English, French and Arabic, coming from all of the three main monotheistic religions, as well as those that are not religious at all,” Dabbagh told Arab News.

‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)

The idea arose after Dabbagh stumbled on an anthology called “Classical Poems by Arab Women,” which contained writings from the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492.

The collection left a lasting impression. “Some were what you would expect. There were poems lamenting the loss of a brother in battle,” Dabbagh said.

“But other women were talking about sexuality in a way that was very self-assured. Some were being a bit provocative, but others were just content with that aspect of their life. The voices were surprising, but they also felt fresh, contemporary and spirited.”

Dabbagh began to notice similar themes in the work of contemporary female authors discussing issues of love and desire — in some cases dealing with the disconnection between the two in relationships, which were portrayed with remarkable sensitivity.

As a fiction writer, Dabbagh had always found this a difficult topic to handle, partly due to self-censorship stemming from her own notions of shame.

“There is a universal insistence on associating the actions of a character with the behavior of an author, which we need to be freed from,” she said.

Sabrina Mahfouz. (Courtesy of Greg Morrison)

“To be a writer who is able to depict those delicate shifts in mood and connections between people takes an enormous amount of skill and imagination. So, the collection is basically a combination of the older, classical poets and the newer voices looking at this difficult terrain.

“A lot of them are very funny, some are quite daring and explicit, and it’s just a different way for women identified with the region to have their writing viewed — through matters of the heart and the body.”

Dabbagh said there is an expectation among English readers that most Arab fiction is slightly depressing, political or downbeat. In the words of Nathalie Handal, one of the poets featured in the anthology, “people think Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.” The book aims to challenge this misconception.

“It tries to bring that sense of emotional excitement and tenderness to a vast, diverse and varied region through the writing of women,” Dabbagh said.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate about women in Arab literature, which actually predates anything published by a female author in the English language. One of the earliest poems included in the anthology dates back almost 5,000 years.

“You have this tradition, mainly in poetry, of writing and letter writing by Arab women before women started writing in Europe,” Dabbagh said. “I really wanted to show that, because it’s not something that is associated with the Arab world in terms of having higher levels of advancement in female literacy.”

Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)

For Dabbagh, whose debut novel “Out of It” was nominated as a Guardian book of the year in 2011-12, navigating the affairs of the heart is not something that necessarily becomes easier with age.

Although she read the works of Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif avidly in her 20s, she wishes there had been more Arab women writers in her youth. “Sadly, I only read fluently in English,” she said.

“It was really radically life-changing for me to read accounts by women of a similar background. I grew up between the Gulf and Europe mainly, and I always found it such a difficult subject matter for me to find my voice.”

Reading their stories made Dabbagh more articulate about her own feelings.

“It just gives you a set of tools with which to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain,” she said. “I think (my book) might help to provide a level of self-knowledge because there are so many different characters in it that readers should be  able to relate to.”

Having read the works of critically acclaimed American writers, whose brash depiction of the hook-up culture she found dulling, her interest returned to the writings of women of Arab heritage to see how their interpretations of romance, sentimentality, vulnerability and desire affected her.

Laura Hanna. (Supplied)

In these works, she found creativity, humor and craft. “We’re always being told to see these two worlds I come from (the West/Europe and the Arab world) as almost antithetical to one another,” Dabbagh said.

“But with the language of love and looking at the Mediterranean as a kind of sea of stories, we can see how there’s been influence over time between Europe and the Arab world.

“In the 19th century, you had a lot of writers and explorers who came to the Arab world because it was a place of freer sensuality. It seemed to be less restrictive than the puritanical backgrounds these writers came from.

“Now that pattern has, to some extent, been reversed.”

During the Abbasid period, the topic  was written about and seen almost as a scientific study. “You could have a book which dealt with astrology and physics as well as expounding on sensuality, because sensuality and getting that harmony right between a couple was something that was indicative of how you can have harmony in the society as a whole,” Dabbagh said.

Elif Shafak. (Supplied)

“So, it was a way of ensuring that the community was in balance and that, to me, is such a beautiful idea. But it’s something that is rarely associated with the religion anymore.”

Nowadays, any associations between religion, women and sexuality appears to be overwhelmingly negative. “I wanted to show that range, to try to break up that stereotype,” she said.

And although one book is unlikely to change opinions overnight, Dabbagh believes women’s voices are gradually subverting traditional methods of censorship.

“The region has been engulfed with images, films and TV for the past 70 years, and most of it was state-run,” she said. “But now with Netflix and online streaming, we have a lot more content coming in and it’s hugely influential.”

Nevertheless, the depiction of Arabs and the Islamic world in Hollywood has improved little in the past century. “There is a kind of mass absorption of negative images of the region from outside, which is going to influence behavior,” Dabbagh said.

“We need to find ways of writing stories which are connected to regional history, cultures, which are exciting, dramatic, sleek and sexy. It’s just about being trained up, opting into it and starting to influence the way these stories are told.”

___________

Twitter: @CalineMalek


British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies

British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies
Riz Ahmed, 38, who was born in London to Pakistani parents, said that offering funding would be game changing in getting more Muslim actors, writer and producers into the movie and TV business. File/AFP
Updated 12 June 2021

British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies

British actor Riz Ahmed leads bid to change way Muslims seen in movies
  • Ahmed is the first Muslim to get a best actor Oscar nomination
  • The $25,000 fellowships for young Muslim artists will be decided by an advisory committee

LONDON: British actor Riz Ahmed on Thursday launched an effort to improve the way Muslims are depicted in movies after a study showed that they are barely seen and shown in a negative light when they do appear.

Ahmed, the "Sound of Metal" star and the first Muslim to get a best actor Oscar nomination, said the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion would include funding and mentoring for Muslim story tellers in the early stages of their careers.

"The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded," Ahmed said in a statement.

"The data doesn't lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives," he added.

Titled "Missing and Maligned," the study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that less than 10% of top-grossing films released from 2017-2019 from the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand featured at least one speaking Muslim character.

When they did, they were shown as outsiders, or threatening, or subservient, the study showed. About one-third of Muslim characters were perpetrators of violence and more than half were targets of violence.

"Muslims live all over the world, but film audiences only see a narrow portrait of this community, rather than viewing Muslims as they are: business owners, friends and neighbors whose presence is part of modern life," said Al-Baab Khan, one of the report's authors.

Ahmed, 38, who was born in London to Pakistani parents, said that offering funding would be game changing in getting more Muslim actors, writer and producers into the movie and TV business.

"Had I not received a scholarship and also a private donation, I wouldn't have been able to attend drama school," he said.

The $25,000 fellowships for young Muslim artists will be decided by an advisory committee that includes actors Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef and comedian Hasan Minhaj.