Fresh perspectives on a once-ancient city

BEIRUT: Type the word “Beirut” into Google, click on “Images,” and hundreds of photographs will appear. Most feature a slice of the Mediterranean bordered by a modern, prosperous-looking city ruled by skyscrapers and yachts.

The remainder tends toward photographs of devastated buildings, crumbling masonry and twisted metal, smoke still rising from the ruins. “Through the Lens of ...,” a group exhibition featuring eleven photographers’ views of Beirut, is refreshingly free of such clichés. The exhibition, currently on show at Clemenceau’s Espace Kettaneh Kunigk, is a retrospective of the photographers exhibited by the gallery over the past four years.

Though Beirut landmarks do appear in the work, they are presented from unusual angles. Randa Mirza, for example, has on display a beautiful series of black-and-white photographs taken at Pigeons’ Rock.

Rather than photographing the rocks from the Corniche at Raouche – a favorite vantage point for tourists to take a quick snapshot – she takes as her subject the Lebanese boys who flock to the muddy banks near the rock formations each summer, competing with one another by diving into the sea below.

One particularly beautiful image captures a boy in mid-air, arms spread gracefully at the apex of his flight as he swallow dives into the sea from a dizzying height. Behind him, eager young faces watch his progress, while in the foreground a close-up of the back of a boy’s head captures the beautiful play of sunlight reflecting off wet black hair.

Another high-point of the show is Nadim Asfar’s series of snapshots entitled “Thinking of Tomorrow, Emotional Landscapes.” Asfar’s series of 42 photographs captures moments from his daily life. Many are taken from the balcony of his flat in Mar Mikhael, overlooking the decaying grandeur of his neighborhood’s historic buildings, which he photographs in sunlight, in moonlight and in the rain.

As a series, these images make a striking set, providing a wonderful portrait of Beirut’s multifaceted architecture and ever-changing moods. While the overall impression is one of vibrant colors and jumbled forms, a closer inspection reveals that the individual photographs are often very simple – a tangle of clothing on a bed, caught in a ray of sunlight, for example.

Some are more striking than others and, taken separately, not all possess the same appeal. While one delicate photo captures a group of men conferring in the dark in Martyrs’ Square, caught in a blur of yellow light, a Lebanese flag flying above them, another photograph is an unattractive image of a little two-bar heater on a tiled floor.

Asfar explains that the photographs were “motivated by emotional calls.” What all have in common is a quiet approach to seeking beauty in the mundane – the deep green of the cedar tree print on a tablecloth or the light of a full moon on the dirty walls of an old building in Mar Mikhael.

Not all the photographs on display are as unusual – Christian Carle Catafago’s two close-ups of olive trees, for example, are attractive but not particularly original.

His set of black-and-white seascapes, however, do succeed in capturing a side of Beirut not seen in any tourist brochure, presenting views of the Mediterranean in winter – storm-tossed, wild and menacing.

An exception to the Beirut theme is provided by two photographs by Lebanese-Brazilian photographer Lamia Maria Abillama, “The Old Women and the Candles” and “Distraction at the Church.”

Both photographs were taken during a trip to Yerevan, Armenia, and capture locals at church in unexpected moments. The first shows four worshippers in silent contemplation of their votive candles, while in the foreground a hunched, sorrowful-looking old lady turns away from the light, her lined face slightly blurred by movement.

While not every photograph will stay with you forever, almost every artist on show provides a unique perspective in their work.

Thanks to the quirkiness of several of the photographers – not least Nancy Debs Hadad’s talent for finding faces in old machinery – “Through the Lens of ...” is a refreshing and entertaining exhibition.

“Through the Lens of ...” is on display at Clemenceau's Espace Kettaneh Kunigk until Sept. 10. For more information please call 01-738-706.





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