Against all odds: Inside Lebanon’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Against all odds: Inside Lebanon’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Ayman Baalbaki, Janus Gate, 2021. (Supplied)
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Updated 27 May 2022

Against all odds: Inside Lebanon’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Against all odds: Inside Lebanon’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale
  • The pavilion showcases the country’s cultural power during ongoing political and economic crises

VENICE: Inside an amply lit space in the Arsenale, one of the most prominent exhibition areas at the Venice Biennale, multimedia installations in Lebanon’s pavilion depict the beauty and chaos that has befallen the country after several years of economic and political crises.

There’s Ayman Baalbaki’s arresting 2021 work “Janus Gate” — a two-sided installation (named for the Roman god of beginnings, endings, transitions and time, usually depicted with two faces) covered in the artist’s abstract expressionist brushstrokes, which underlines the idea of a fragmented city. The vibrant front is typical of Baalbaki’s expressionistic painting style; it features the media panels placed on construction sites depicting an artist’s rendition of what the building will look like decorated with neon lights and spray-paint, imposing the lively chaos of the capital city’s present onto corporate promises of a brighter future.

Walk through a doorway to the back side and the visitor is confronted by a dimly lit olive-green monochrome recreation of a watchman’s hut, with a washing line and small table outside. From inside the hut comes a red light showing, Baalbaki explains, “the heat of a living creature.” The olive-green is a deliberate reference to the military, and how the civil wars in Lebanon and Syria turned civilians into soldiers. The red light alludes to the thermal signatures visible through night-vision scopes.




Ayman Baalbaki, Janus Gate, 2021. (Supplied)

Baalbaki’s installation, like Janus, combines the past, present and future. It gracefully depicts the stoicism and resilience of the average citizen in the face of chaos.

Across from it, a haunting split-screen movie by Lebanese-French filmmaker and artist Danielle Arbid titled “Allô Chéri” (2022) plays. It is shot from inside a car driving through Beirut. The soundtrack is a woman narrating how she is constantly chasing money. That woman is Arbid’s mother.

Arbid was born in Lebanon in 1970. She moved to Paris aged 17. In 1997, she directed her first film. Since then, she has alternated between fiction, first-person documentaries, and video essays, and works as a photographer. Her work has won numerous awards and been the subject of several retrospectives.




Ayman Baalbaki. (Supplied)

For “Allô Chéri,” Arbid installed a recording device in her mother’s mobile phone (with her mother’s consent) and soon discovered that her mother was running her own banking system — a result of Lebanon’s financial collapse and the need for the people to access money through other means than the official economic system.

“I discovered my mother’s turbulent financial life,” Arbid told Arab News. “Secrets of debts that she hid from us, but that we (guessed at), because she was very stressed during this period. My mother’s life resembles the economic life of Lebanon today.”

The film also shows Arbid’s mother wandering the streets of Beirut. Like those around her, she looks for answers and clings on to hope, but clearly carries with her the despair and weight of the tragedies that have befallen her city.




Aline Asmar d’Amman. (Supplied)

“Allô Chéri” is one of a series of nine films that Arbid has been working on for several years titled “My Lebanese Family.” Each family member has a film focused on them, each in a different genre.

Lebanon’s participation at the 59th Venice Biennale is only the second in its history, and considering all that has transpired in the country, exhibiting in Venice is a feat that goes against all odds.

The pavilion was inaugurated one month before the Lebanese went to vote in the country’s parliamentary elections — ones which resulted in victory for some opposition candidates, spelling momentary celebration for those hoping for change. A desire and commitment to change and to Lebanese heritage and culture can similarly be felt in Venice — but through art.

The Lebanese state provided no money to stage the show; it was entirely privately funded by generous Lebanese art collectors and patrons.




Danielle Arbid. (Supplied)

“The private sector wanted to make sure that Lebanon was well-represented,” Lebanese art collector and patron Basel Dalloul, one of the pavilion’s funders, told Arab News. “The exhibition does represent Beirut’s contemporary art movement. It portrays a commentary on the two sides of Beirut echoing the ancient Roman god of Janus and his two two-faces.”

The Lebanese Visual Art Association (LVAA) organized the Lebanese Pavilion under the patronage of the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, who mandated Nada Ghandour to curate the show. The two artists — Arbid and Baalbaki — were chosen to provide two different but connected viewpoints on contemporary Beirut. Arbid has witnessed her country’s travails from the diaspora, whereas Baalbaki lives and works in Beirut.

“This year, the Lebanese Pavilion comes to life in spite of the extremely challenging times that Lebanon is going through, and the political, economic, and social turmoil that the Lebanese are facing,” Ghandour told Arab News. “By placing the Lebanese Pavilion in the Arsenale, I wanted to show that Lebanon still exists on the world art map and also to send a strong message to artists in Lebanon to encourage and motivate them; to show them that there is support for them, and also promote Lebanon’s contemporary art scene, an important sector for the country.




Danielle Arbid, Allô Chérie, 2015. (Supplied)

“The exhibition invites viewers on a symbolic journey into our contemporary world through a theme, a city, and two artists who maintain a political and aesthetic dialogue from a distance, by presenting artworks which are so far and yet so close,” she continued.

Paris-based Lebanese architect Aline Asmar d’Amman, who designed the pavilion.

“My first intuition was to express a powerful message of hope and unity from Lebanon to the world,” d’Amman told Arab News. “The circular brutalist egg-shaped envelope is a symbolic gesture, a tribute to the cinema of Joseph Karam in Beirut and the experimental theater by Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli, both monuments that became ruins during the civil war. The structure is open like an oculus, revealing the magnificent wooden framework of the Arsenal. Ayman’s monumental sculptural installation and Danielle’s energetic images travelling through the streets of Beirut, framed in the circle, incarnate the dialogue and the deep plunge into our beloved city.”

Through their artworks, those two artists poignantly — and at times painfully — relay the beauty and decay of the city of Beirut and life as they once knew it in Lebanon.

Baalbaki, born in 1975 — the year the Lebanese Civil War started — has long been one of Lebanon’s most acclaimed artists, known for his work that focuses on political and social issues relating to Lebanon and the Arab world, particularly the conflicts that have ravaged the region.

“The city of Beirut for me is just as Foucault says: ‘A heterochronic space,’ meaning within one space there are several other spaces — utopian and real at the same time,” Baalbaki explained. “You feel like Beirut stretches forward and backward. Janus has two heads: one head faces backwards and another forward. He symbolizes the beginning and the end of time. And, with time, there is a promise of the future.”


Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
Updated 01 July 2022

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
  • The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker on his moving refugee doc ‘Captains of Zaatari’ and future plans

DUBAI: Nearly 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentarian behind “Captains of Zaatari,” made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement of displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenaged boy he had just met named Fawzi Qatleesh asked if he could speak his truth to the camera. 

“On the first day I arrived, he asked me, ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to the people outside of this camp.’ The second he started to talk, I said to myself, ‘This boy is my hero,’” El-Arabi tells Arab News.

Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted the people outside those fences to know the truth of the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he only wanted opportunity. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a years-long global festival tour, his promise is fulfilled.

“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. That was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made him on the first day. I told him to say what was in his heart, and I would tell everyone in the world his story. That has been my mission ever since,” says El-Arabi.

El-Arabi knew what it felt like to have a message that people needed to hear. He was himself once an athlete, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning Egypt’s national kickboxing championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sport, instead turning towards filmmaking.

“Captains of Zaatari” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

“I started to feel I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized filmmaking was the way I could say it. I started making small documentaries about what was happening and screening them in the street. One day, the police came and I took my film and I ran. That made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.” 

El-Arabi left Egypt, partnering with the ZDF TV channel to film documentaries in war zones including Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unfulfilling, as it so often stripped away the humanity of those caught in its horrors.

“Refugees and the victims in the war were all just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” El-Arabi says. “I couldn’t process it that way. These were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.” 

After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher — the two boys he would ultimately follow from the refugee camp in Jordan all the way to an elite soccer program in the Gulf — El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before whittling their story down to a scant 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while also refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

Nonetheless, the film is bursting with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments have come showing the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher and Qatleesh when he first found them.

“We screened it at a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came up to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that they could not only have dreams, they could achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.

Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of both young men whose story it follows.

“They’re stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs have watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” El-Arabi says. “The government of Jordan and the leaders in the camps respect them. Children in the camps are looking to them as role models. I speak to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, even though they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start delivering on their promise as soon as possible, and transforming their situation too.”

A still from El-Arabi's upcoming project “Ashish’s Journey.” (Supplied)

While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work over the last few years on another — “Ashish’s Journey” — about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. It is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar as he filmed “Captains of Zaatari.” 

“An Indian man came to me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a soccer player, and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” El-Arabi explains. “He told me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have money to come, so I came here to work now, so that I could meet the famous players one day. I thought you were one of them.’”

The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him to not only film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family back to India, even adding fictional elements (with Ashish playing himself) inspired by the classic French satirical novella “Candide” to the docu-film.

“He’s actually a very good actor,” El-Arabi says.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

While El-Arabi knows that he will finish filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he does not plan to rush the film out in the immediate aftermath of the event. 

“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush it for a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I’ve put into this — just to have something done fast,” he says. 

El-Arabi has other projects in the works as well. He’s currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing producing an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight.” Closest to his heart, though, is the fiction film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father. 

“We’re talking to major international stars (about) it,” he says. “It’s a story that takes a lot from my own experiences with my family, and nearly every time I pitch it to people they cry. One person I work closely with, as soon as I finished, said they had to leave room to call their father.”

While telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career moving forward, ultimately what drives him is not capturing his identity — it’s capturing his soul. 

“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think a lot about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think about humans. That’s all I’m interested in.”


The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos
Updated 01 July 2022

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

The French connection: Louvre opens exhibition of artefacts from Byblos

PARIS: A new exhibition at Paris’ Louvre Museum illustrates the longstanding cultural relationship between France and Lebanon.

“Byblos et le Louvre,” which runs until Sept. 11, is a unique display of archaeological artifacts from the Lebanese seaport town of Byblos (also known as Jbeil), one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. 

Visitors will find ceramic jars, small figurines, cuneiform tablets, and ancient weapons on display, some of which are thousands of years old. Despite their age, many of the items are in remarkably good condition. 

Ensemble figurines votives, Byblos Musée du Louvre, Raphaël Chipault. (Supplied)

“What is amazing is the pottery, which looks like it’s been made yesterday,” Tania Zaven, an archaeologist of Lebanon’s Directorate General of Antiquities, told Arab News. 

For Louvre archaeologist Julien Chanteau, who was on site during recent excavations, Byblos is a hugely significant site with a lot of stories to tell. 

“It’s a very small site, maybe six hectares. But you can read all the history of mankind there, from the Neolithic period until today,” Chanteau said. “Byblos is like a book. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

“You have all cultures and civilizations: The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Greeks, and the Arabs have all left traces on this site,” he continued. “It’s very impressive for an archeologist to have such an amount of information. It’s like a chronicle of humanity.” 

Under Napoleon III, the first French-led excavations in Byblos began in 1860, led by scholar Ernest Renan. He brought many objects back to France, and released detailed publications of the excavation. 

Excavations have continued to the present day — although they were interrupted in the Seventies because of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2018, a scientific excavation program was relaunched, pairing archaeologists and experts from the Louvre Museum and the DGA. They have explored the area’s royal underground chambers, tombs, and temples. 

Byblos et le Louvre. (Supplied)

Zaven noted some of the challenges of undertaking archeological missions in Lebanon, including security and looting. “Every day we are working against illicit trafficking,” she said. “We wanted to have this exhibition to show that Lebanon is still here. We believe in our culture and we want our culture to stay alive.” 

In October, the exhibition will travel to a museum in the Dutch city of Leiden. It will also be exhibited, next spring, in an old house in Byblos, coming full circle. 


Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 
Updated 01 July 2022

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

Curtain falls on Arab Men’s Fashion Week with Amato show 

DUBAI: Arab Men’s Fashion Week came to a close on Thursday with Dubai-based label Amato presenting the final show. 

This is Filipino designer Furne One’s ninth time closing an edition of the Dubai-based fashion week. 

The founder of the brand presented various designs in a spectrum of colors, inspired by the bold and bright hues of India. 

A complete turnaround from his previous men’s collection, which featured all-white ensembles, this season, the designer went back to the brand’s roots with colorful fabrics and experimental silhouettes.

Materials included lace, tulle, silk, cotton and leather. 

“I was fascinated by the idea of having a moment of realization and celebration,” One said in a released statement.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Maison Du Mec (@maisondumec)

His aim was to intensify the senses and make the audience look at the details of each garment — the silhouette, the neckline and the surface decoration — rather than focusing on “looks.” 

“I was also inspired by India’s diversity — from culture, religion, languages, geography and everything in between,” he added. “Their unique differences while building one nation really inspires me — I want to dig deeper and find out how this uniqueness made them create dimensional colors that we only see within our naked eyes.”

The event, which kicked off on June 28, presented the Spring/Summer 2023 collections of more than 10 regional and international designers, including Lebanese brand Maison du Mec, London-based label Permu, Beirut fashion house Tagueule and Dubai-based couturier Michael Cinco. 

The first day of the fashion week kicked off with a collaboration between Swiss tech accessories brand Ferronato and Maison du Mec that was a mash up between fashion and technology.

The collaboration featured soft leather backpacks, micro smartphone cases, multi-functional clutches and slouchy drawstring bags in shades of blue and burgundy. A life size robotic dog, representing Ferronato’s innovative accessories, closed the show.

For Permu, designers Heyun Pan and Jing Qian presented daily ensembles and occasion wear that featured skin-tight tops, bucket hats, backwards-facing blazers and jackets with cut slits, puffed sleeves and exaggerated shoulder pads. 

Tagueule’s silky trousers and shirts in monochrome shades were featured on the same runway as vests and cargo pants outfitted with utilitarian pockets and straps.

Cinco’s designs were marked by a sunset color gradient ranging from orange and yellow to black. Capes and kandoras were a salute to Emirati culture, while an array of smart, sporty sets spoke to a wider clientele.


The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
Updated 01 July 2022

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region

The Roundup: Pop-culture highlights from across the region
  • From an Algerian indie veteran and Lebanese newcomers to Libyan trap-pop and Egyptian ‘mind-map art,’ here are six regional artists making waves with their work

Souad Massi

‘Dessine-Moi Un Pays’ 

The Algerian singer-songwriter’s first single from her upcoming tenth album “Sequana” is a deceptively simple folk-tinged ballad — stripped back but with a beautifully subtle acoustic guitar line over which Massi’s emotive, yearning vocals fit perfectly. Syrian flautist Naïssam Jalal adds an impressive solo. The song’s title translates as “Draw Me A Land,” and Massi said in a press release that it was inspired by exile. “Those people who (clung) to planes leaving Kabul when the Taliban returned — it was for them that I wrote this song,” she explained. “Whilst rooted in France, there is a sense the song is filled with memories of a lost Algeria and of her childhood,” the release states.

Yazan Abu Salameh

‘Bending Toward The Sun’

The Palestinian artist’s solo exhibition is available to view in 3D online until July 30, courtesy of Ramallah’s Zawyeh Gallery. The show’s title is a reference to how plants seek light, but Abu Salameh’s works are concerned with finding the light in Palestine’s densely built-up towns, where expansion is restricted by the occupation. His ink paintings reference Israel’s “Seperation Wall” and other military structures. The show includes “Gift Box 3,” shown here.

“The sun dominates Abu Salameh’s artworks and appears in the background overlooking structures of concrete,” the gallery’s press release explains. “The melancholy of the urban environment and the overwhelming presence of concrete as a byproduct of the military occupation overshadows the works.” Abu Salameh’s boxes of “congested buildings with little white windows” are left partly open “as if the towns desire to escape confinement.”  

Felula 

‘Seket’ (live)

Recorded during Felula’s performance for the 10th anniversary celebrations of Beirut Jam Sessions, this funky Arabic pop track shows off the duo’s knack for laying earworm-y hooks under Sara Abdo’s understated-but-powerful vocals. The show was actually Abdo and guitarist Roger Zouein’s first performance as Felula, but they played like they’d been doing it for years. 


Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris

Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris
Updated 01 July 2022

Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris

Museum of the Future unveils bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow during event in Paris
  • Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, described the new museum as the latest addition to the list of world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks
  • He was speaking during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a prestigious three-day event that took place at the Louvre Museum this week

PARIS: The UAE’s Museum of the Future has unveiled its bold vision for the Dubai of tomorrow. It presented its ideas during the 26th International Trade Show for Museums, a three-day event at the Louvre Museum in Paris that attracted many of the world’s leading cultural institutions.

The delegation at the event, which concluded on Thursday, was led by Khalfan Belhoul, the CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, and also included Lath Carlson, the executive director of the Museum of the Future, and Majed Al-Mansoori, its deputy executive director.

The museum, which is located in Dubai’s Financial District and opened in February, was invited to attend the trade show to share its ideas for incubating a new generation of talent and helping to build a better future for humanity.

By embracing the latest breakthroughs in advanced technology, its team also aims to offer unparalleled visitor experiences and help to stimulate the cultural economy of Dubai.

“Our presence here in Paris represents a golden opportunity to engage with like-minded peers and establish deeper ties as we create pioneering experiences in a museum focused on making history by perceiving the future,” Belhoul said.

He described the Museum of the Future as the latest addition to the list of the world’s most celebrated cultural landmarks and added that it has set new benchmarks in the design and development of cultural landmarks.

“Today, it serves as an incubator for bright minds to accelerate big ideas that can strengthen Dubai’s position as a place to address some of the world’s most complex challenges,” he said.

By embracing cutting-edge technology and the pursuit of innovation to drive social, economic and environmental growth, Dubai is helping to unify global efforts to build a better future for humankind, added Belhoul.