Johnny Alam and Akram Zaatari at CUAG

Herd Magazine
29 January 2015

A thoughtful review of the Agnes’ Akram Zaatari: All Is Well show, now at Carleton University Art Gallery

“In the name of God the most merciful, most gracious,” begin the blessings of Akram Zaatari’s 48 portraits of prisoners dedicated to Nabih Awada (1993-1998). The messages are signed by imprisoned members of the Hezbollah, Fatah, Amal Movement, and the Palestinian Communist Party. Each signature in turn marks the portrait of its author who pens these heartened greetings to Nabih Awada, a Lebanese teenager who was imprisoned in Israel for participating in military operations against the Israeli army, and detained without conviction until his 18th birthday.

These postcards are collected in the exhibition All is Well (2015), currently at the Carleton University Art Gallery, by internationally renowned Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, who is known for working primarily with video and photography. Zaatari can be recognized as one of the founders of the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), based out of Beirut. While the AIF, as a non-profit organization, undertakes the archival of images from across North Africa, the Middle East, and the international Arabic diaspora, Zaatari’s own work reflects a balance of a scholarly approach with a personal, poetic composition of archival material. The letters and photographs are presented as artifacts, with the reverence of a museum collection. Stray words in the correspondences with Awada — “as fast as a Scud missile”, the inclusion of zajal tapes, “when our South is liberated” — allow a glimpse of historical context in a medium that is otherwise personal.

The language is imbued with a inseparable relation to land — the impassioned possessiveness towards soil as nation and the tender attachment to familial place. Blue and black Arabic script lingers over an endless longing for the “soil of Aytaroun”, for a “beloved land” and “precious homeland”, for the “free lands of Lebanon and Palestine”. Home and freedom are wished for in simple words from the walls of Israeli prisons: Askalan, Bir Sabeh, Jalameh, Kfar Yonna, Shatta, and Talmond.

“To Neruda whose eyes stare at a wounded nation and a steadfast South…
in spite of the knife stabs…
To you, who seeded the nights of Lebanon with robins…
I offer you this portrait of me, so it endures like a pulse and a souvenir of days in which we shared the smile and the tear… happiness and sorrow…
and we seized sunbeams and weaved a dawn, coming tomorrow…
With deep love and faithfulness
Mahmoud el Safadi, Abu Safad
December 27, 1994?

Neruda becomes Awada’s pseudonym, translating into the boy’s own rose-adorned letters to his family and the affectionate solidarity of his fellow prisoners. The echoing statement with which he consoles his family, “all is well”, is a heartbreaking resistance of a young man in silence about his pain. Awada carries a dignity that defies the cruelty of war and its human mechanisms. Nabih Awada, gentle Neruda, inadvertently creates a portrait of war-torn Lebanon through his letters, in the collected documents, and the objects that were used to hide letters in the body and underground. The urgency of news is suspended by a necessity for secrecy. Concealed in a mortar shell, Awada’s letters bring calm; passed between prisoners in a kiss through a prison fence, they soften a militaristic element of prescribed masculinity and attest to the simplicity of the body as a vessel for peace in the most brutal conditions.

In parallel to Zaatari’s All is Well, multimedia visual artist Johnny Alam curated a four-part exhibit called Art on a Green Line (2015). As the exhibition title implies, Alam’s series is a meditation on Beirut’s Green Line, a historic separation between East and West Beirut, much like the familiar divide of East and West Berlin. The collection concentrates on small selections from artists of Lebanon’s ‘War Generation’ — the same period in which Nabih Awada was detained. This decade, toward the end of a 15-year civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, is considered to mark the beginning of Lebanese Modern art.

Alam shows how artists subvert the modification of history by creating false historical documents. Factual documentation of Lebanese history was repressed and destroyed under the Syrian rule that lasted through the Lebanese Civil War and until 2005. Much of Lebanese Modern art sought not to interpret or recreate history, but to use the qualities of misrepresentation, deliberate deconstruction and fragility. Methods of deconstruction and assemblage were necessitated by a period where the Syrian-controlled government of Lebanon sought out, reinterpreted and destroyed historical documents. The fictionalization of history as political response became an identifying characteristic of Lebanese art during this period of conflict; this is seen in Alam’s inclusion of the exhibition catalogue Miraculous Beginnings (2011) by Walid Raad and Beirut Metro Map (2005) by Hassan Choubassi, both of which weave fact and fiction to depict historical narratives of Beirut.

In a return to Zaatari’s reflections on the role of place in connection to identity, Alam’s collage Origins of the Green Line: A Media Archaeology (2015) depicts the massacres at Mount Lebanon in 1860 and the humanitarian response that came from the French military intervention. Appreciating the sustained memory of self in relation to place, Alam references French historian Pierre Nora’s ‘lieux de mémoire’, or sites of memory. Alam’s own fragmented photograph, A Palimpsest of Crises (2015), depicts Saint George’s Maronite Cathedral as it is constructed on top of Roman Empire ruins in Beirut. The cover of Raad’s Miraculous Beginnings uses ambiguous graphic design to depict the locations of found bullet holes along a stone wall. The physical laceration, as Alam refers to it, of the schism through Beirut is represented with a poignant stitching of a map in Beirut’s Green Line: the resistance of a laced-up corset grips together a wound that cut across Lebanon’s capital. Memory is inextricably contained and expressed within Lebanon’s architecture.

Although Alam concentrates more on how the division has played out in a historic context and how the memory of it has been preserved, there is some implication of how the effects of this division remain today. Postcards of War (1997-2006) is an interpretation of this distancing. Created by filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, the postcard series is a response to large-scale urban redevelopment projects by the government-supported stock company Solidere: initiatives that were effectively wiping out the memory of conflict in Beirut by pushing landowners out of their property and tearing down historical buildings.  The geopolitical face of Lebanon’s conflict is recontextualized through the ephemerality of kitsch. Any traces of war along the Green Line are obscured so that the demolished architecture of Beirut cannot be made out from the otherwise striking colours and textures; it is a false brilliance, a vibrancy that conceals real and still-open wounds.

By assembling objects that relate to alternately personal and public significance, Alam considers the memory of war and the communication of its narrative within diasporic communities. The Green Line is more vaguely referenced in the work of artists from diasporic communities, who are further removed from the specific site of conflict. Alam explains that “the sectarian language that expresses the memory of the Lebanese wars is neither tolerable nor comprehensible within nations such as Canada”.

“…many only become aware of their Lebaneseness in diaspora,” says Alam. “My concern is with new generations that did not experience the wars or the Green Line firsthand; a number of these individuals tend to romanticize about these phenomena and develop severed radical judgements which eventually lead to new cycles of violence and new Green Lines.”

Alam uses the term ‘faux-ephemeral art’ in reference to the artistic falsifications that, nevertheless, speak the greatest historical truth. The fragility of the work becomes a central part to the artists’ expression. Video and digital photography lend a perceived endurance to visual artifacts; though archives appear to no longer be situated on a precarious historic divide, this is promise of infallibility is deceptive.

“It is too early for us to claim that digital media will last for eternity or outlast conventional media,” says Alam. “The common workaround for the challenge of media ruination has been remediation with which the original material is often lost. Yet even if we were able to successfully preserve an item for eternity, the personal and collective memories it stimulates will eventually be contaminated by interference and will change over time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes forgetting is as important as remembering as Ernest Renan once suggested.”

The Lebanese Civil War that unites Alam’s Art on a Green Line with Zaatari’s All is Well settles into the humility of the self as a particle of a greater identity. The intimate becomes a conduit of public narrative, the false communicates the undertones of a concealed truth, that which is seen as mundane during times of peace becomes swollen with heroism during war. It is the focus on ‘life as opposed to death’, as Alam states, that returns the narrative into the hands of the audience. The resuscitation of an accurate Lebanese history by Alam and Zaatari seems to ask, what is determined to be valuable in the deliberate erasure of history? And how can the consideration of intimate objects enable a more empathetic understanding and urgent preservation of histories that are being actively erased?

Written by Lital Khaikin
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