From document to accident to art

BEIRUT: “I remember seeing people making drawings of the area with such precision that they looked like Google Earth images,” recalled Ouzai resident Salah Nasser. “We were kids. ... To us, they were artists, and looked like tourists with their camera. After they finished their drawings, they totally vanished. We never saw them again. Then the Israeli bombardment began.”

Nasser’s remarks are from his recollections of the work of Palestinian militants in his seaside community in 1973. His anecdotes are among those Lamia Joreige includes in her pamphlet “A Brief History of Ouzai,” launched a few days ago at “Under-Writing Beirut,” her exhibition at Marfa’.

This “Brief History” is also laid out as a wall installation in Joreige’s show, 15 A4 sheets hung adjacent the 2017 series “Ouzai: Cartography of a Transformation.” According to Marfa’s exhibition guide, the series’ four landscape-shaped images have been derived from six maps of the territory – five from the Lebanese military, dating 1956-95, and a 2017 image from Zoom Earth.

The proximity of the history and the cartography in the Marfa’ show makes Nasser’s recollections of mapmaking – evoking sketches precise enough to resemble mechanical imaging a la Google Earth – thud solidly against the back of the head.

“It proposes a subjective and poetic visual interpretation of the transformation of Ouzai over the years,” the guide says of the prints, “from a sandy coastal mostly uninhabited area to a densely built and populated one.”

Gazing at Joreige’s cartographic series, the first impression isn’t one of simple reproduction but of precisely the sort of photo-realism Nasser describes.

The Marfa’ show doesn’t exhibit “Under-Writing Beirut” in its entirety but samples work from the second and third chapters of Joreige’s project, “The River” and “Ouzai.”

“Mathaf,” 2013, this project’s first chapter, seeks to situate Lebanon’s National Museum within the social history of the Hurj (Pine Forest), the region of southern Beirut where the museum was embedded, and its ensuing years of civil conflict, population movement and property development.

The work in “The River” and “Ouzai” follows the same research-based practice driving “Mathaf” – mingling documentary photos and data with original pieces the research inspired.

“In a research-based project like ‘Under-Writing Beirut,’ the research lasts for a certain time and I don’t know if I’m gonna do a sculpture or drawings or aerial views or digital images,” Joreige mused in a recent interview. “The form doesn’t precede the research, but [there is an ongoing] debate about what kind of relationship I want with the real, with capturing the real.

“Of course I don’t want to have a basic documentary relationship. At some point I wanted to do less painting because I felt that my painting ... was evolving from something between figurative and abstract art to something more abstract.

“I could no longer confront myself with the context I’m living in,” she continued. “I was no longer able, through my painting, to be grounded in the realities that I was trying to criticize or to question. It was very different to do it with time-based [electronic] media.”

The audiovisual work, Joreige said, “even as some of them border fiction, still has a very strong connection with the context and the real that I felt was very important.”

The regions inspiring these three chapters of “Under-Writing Beirut” – Mathaf, Jisr al-Wati and Ouzai – are located on the southern, northeastern and southwestern extremes of greater Beirut.

Both “The River” and “Ouzai” are based on research-based narratives – stacked near the door, “A Brief History of Ouzai” is the first piece you see upon entering Marfa’, the 20-minute 2016 video “After the River” is the last.

Erected to complement Joreige’s work, these loose collections of anecdote echo cognate tales of marginal, sparsely populated areas being settled and integrated into the city and efforts (successful or not) to gentrify them.

Anyone who understands gentrification as “restoring” or “overhauling” – rather than conscience-free property speculation – might see the artist’s approach to “Under-Writing Beirut” to be itself a sort of aesthetic gentrification.

The sculpture “Ouzai,” 2017, for instance, reiterates the lines of topography and transportation arteries you’d find on a map of the region in metallic terms. Glancing at the work hanging from the gallery wall of Marfa’, it evokes “map” or “aerial photo” less than the assault rifle of a gunman with a weakness for bling.

Most of the works here are more delicate. The series “The River,” 2015-17, takes the form of 11 portrait-shaped paper works that aestheticize the course of the Beirut River. “Coastline 1,2,3,4,” 2017, deploy the same media to the mutable landscape-shaped images that inform the photo-realist “Ouzai: Cartography.”

“I integrate my painting practice within the research-based project, departing from a document,” Joreige said. “I [took] the maps collected for ‘The River’ and ‘Ouzai’ and [with transparency paper] used the topographies as points of departure.

“This is where my cooking comes ... ironing wax with some kind of loose pigment, graphite pencil, pastels, etc. This is where it evolves into something. Part of it is very controlled and part of it leaves room for accident, which has always been an integral part of my painting and drawing practice.

“When I iron some pigment into wax it may spread in various directions, but after doing this for a while you can begin to control the way the accident takes place.”

“Under-Writing Beirut” is up at Marfa’ through Dec. 29.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 23, 2017, on page 16.




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