War (art). What’s it good for?

SHARJAH, UAE: A great story can go a long way. Quite a lot of contemporary art has been erected around tales that cling to places, objects and individuals - though they may be inaudible in the works themselves.

There’s an intriguing confluence of narrative within “Once Removed.” Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 2019 video resides in a two-room gallery in Bait al-Serkal, one of the dozens of spaces currently housing the exhibitions of Sharjah Art Biennial 14, “Beyond the Echo Chamber.”

The subject of Abu Hamdan’s SB14 commission is Bassel, a 30-something writer-researcher and collector of rare objects and interviews connected to Lebanon’s Civil War, specifically the activities of the Progressive Socialist Party, allied to Druze “zaim” Walid Joumblatt.

The work is in two parts. The main attraction is a looped video of the artist interviewing Bassel about his work, conducted as both men stand before a slide projection of items from his collection. The conversation is informed, in part, by how Lebanese of Bassel and Abu Hamdan’s generation tend to be ill-informed about the 1975-90 conflict because discussion of the war was repressed when they were growing up in the ’90s.

In the antechamber leading to the projection are a series of screens where photos and text reiterate details of the collector’s life and the civil war that, being born in 1987, he’s too young to have experienced.

While discussing the provenance of a PSP flag in his collection, Bassel casually mentions that the object is a remnant of his previous life. It unfolds that he is widely acknowledged to be the reincarnation of a PSP fighter named Yousef Fouad al-Jawhari, killed age 16 in early 1984. The Jawhari family, Bassel reflects, has a history of reincarnation.

“Once Removed” works on multiple levels.

For random visitors, the incongruity in the piece (Bassel’s claims of reincarnation contradict his apparent rationality, and the academic seriousness of his research) offers a comic vignette from the anthology of mad cruelty that is civil war.

For more open-minded viewers, perhaps with some knowledge of Lebanon’s conflict-laden history or Druze doctrine, any comedy is freighted with authenticity whether the political class’ amnesiac post-war policies or the resilience of belief in a multiply traumatized minority community. Among those onlookers familiar with Lebanese contemporary art, “Once Removed” is more resonant still.

Bassel’s collection of war memorabilia seems to speak to the work of other artists - variously dubbed “the ’90s generation,” who came of age during the Civil War, or “the archive generation,” for their work’s referencing (and critique of) archival practices.

“Once Removed” is most evocative of stage play “How Nancy Wished that Everything was an April Fool’s Joke,” which premiered in Beirut in 2007 after being staged several times overseas. Written and performed by Rabih Mroue and Lina Majdalani (nee Saneh) the work is premised on the recollections of four Lebanese fighters of various ideologies and communities, who spent the Civil War repeatedly fighting, dying and resurrecting, only to fight and die for another side.

Formally and thematically distinct in every way, the two works nevertheless share twin narratives of civil war and reincarnation, an oddity that will likely ensure they crop up in the same conversations for some time to come.

SB14 is comprised of three separate curated exhibitions - Claire Tancons’ “Look for Me All Around You,” Omar Kholeif’s “Making New Time,” Zoe Butt’s “Journey Beyond The Arrow” - with work by 82 artists and collaborations. Any number of themes can read into this wealth of work.

One that lingers is the persistence of what might be termed a post-conflict aesthetic. War and its aftermath are marbled with compelling stories and artists have forever tapped that vein. As the work of the “archive generation” testifies, though, conflict can be daunting source material.

Embedded in politics themselves, contemporary artists want neither to be too close to the conflict in question, lest they succumb to the allure of partisan propaganda, nor to be accused of being pornographers of violence accusations leveled against engaged artists working during Lebanon’s 20th-century wars.

This challenge helped shape the practical and formal decisions of engaged contemporary artists’ including their aversion to representations of violence, and interest in the archive.

As it happens, much Lebanese work in SB14 seems interested in neither conflict nor the archive.

Take “The Landing” by Akram Zaatari who, as a founder of the Arab Image Foundation, epitomizes the archive generation. The installation centers on his feature-length film set in a long-abandoned Sharjawi social housing project.

Enacted by three Lebanese musicians, the film’s “plot” is devoted to the protagonists making sounds in the sand-clotted ghost town.

“Time Travel,” the SB14 commission of Caline Aoun, flickers to life for an hour every evening at sunset, a live-stream projection of the artist’s location at that time of day - whether she’s in Beirut, or at home in the hills outside town. Aesthetically the work is electronic landscape art, denuded of conflict. Spatially and temporally, it is explicitly anti-archival.

The legacies of foreign occupation and civil war remain a fact of life throughout the global south. SB14’s contribution to the discussion of post-conflict aesthetics is to set engaged work from the MENA region alongside that from elsewhere in Asia.

Jompet Kuswidananto’s multimedia video installation “Keroncong Concordia” and Tuan Andrew Nguye’s video installation “The Spectre of Ancestors Becoming” abjure the violence of European imperialism in favor of tranquil recollections of its lingering cultural syncretism.

Meiro Koizumi’s “The Angels of Testimony” addresses the Japanese army’s brutal treatment of Chinese civilians during its occupation.

Michael Rakowitz’s sardonic stop-motion animation “The Ballad of Special Ops Cody” is premised on the story of the eponymous U.S. infantry action figure, which Iraqi insurgents “kidnapped.” Imperialism is here recollected as comedy.

Works inspired by civil war are less sanguine.

Modestly staged on a flat-screen monitor in an alcove, Marwa Arsanios’ 2017 video “Who is afraid of ideology? Part 1” grew out of workshops and reading groups staged among women’s communes in Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region. The discussion centers on the women fighters’ evolution into agriculturists, and how ecological knowledge was integral to social organization and struggle.

Installed nearby, Arsanios’ SB14 commission “Who is afraid of ideology? Part 2” takes her inquiries to Jinwar, a women-only village in northeast Syria that after 2011 re-appropriated and developed abandoned state land, and a farming cooperative in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

While both these works are situated within the ephemeral revolutionary promise of the Syrian conflict, Arsanios all but ignores the war in favor of the bottom-up communal organization that developed in the state’s absence. Drawing on testimony rather than a non-existent archive, Arsanios places herself before the camera, reminding her audience of the constructed context of her informants’ storytelling.

Hrair Sarkissian has a personal interest in the Syrian conflict, which has inspired his suite of commissioned work. Sarkissian’s practice is far more aesthetic than that of Arsanios but his work too averts its gaze from war, expressing the trauma of displacement in other subjects.

The objects and photos of “In Final Flight,” 2018-19, project human precarity and migration upon the critically endangered northern bald ibis - declared extinct, discovered in Palmyra in 2002, then disappearing completely after the region fell to Daesh (ISIS).

“Flight” includes a series of seven sculpted ibis skulls facing an aerial video tracing their former migration route. The birds’ flight path is also represented in a wall-mounted metallic relief map, while a photo captures the last known sighting of two of the birds, in flight.

Sarkissian’s one archival piece, “Residue,” 2019, also has least relation to Syria’s war. The source material is a photographic negative of a portrait of a mid-20th-century bourgeois woman, found in Damascus. The work is a 3-D print of the negative, massively enlarged to accentuate the material damage to the negative, so that it resembles a relief map.

Other artists have pursued different formal and narrative strategies to address aspects of civil war.

“Flowers of Evil,” a suite of multimedia works commissioned from Khadim Ali, a member of Afghanistan’s persecuted Hawza community, addresses the legacy of Afghanistan’s recent history of foreign occupation, civil war and Taliban rule particularly the exploitation of faith and charity and the normalization of violence.

The works include a massive steel mock-up of a bomb impacting a rug and video and sound installations, but most of his pieces have been fabricated from traditional media - hand- and machine-made rugs and embroideries and paintings on paper.

There is an aesthetic monumentality in Ali’s series that makes it entirely distinct from other works concerned with sublimating civil conflict.

T. Shanaathanan’s mixed-media installation “Drawers of War Transactions” is inspired by the civilian experience of Sri Lanka’s 1978-2009 civil war.

Interested in how personal documentation can be sites of negotiation, resistance and agency, the work is comprised of wooden filing cabinets exhibiting a collection of 80 documents a selective archive of identity cards, police registration certificates, birth certificates, land deeds, and the like - issued by both Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan state.

These documents are complemented by a series of paintings of vivisected bodies - expressionist depictions of the experience of checkpoints that may be familiar to survivors of Lebanon’s war.

For more information on SB14, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 24, 2019, on page 12.




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