Home Makeover

Left: Ashkal Alwan director Christine Tohme with poet and translator Yussef Bazzi. Right: Artists Paola Yacoub and Rabih Mroué.

SOMEWHERE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA in the late seventh century, a quixotic young poet named Qays fell totally and hopelessly for a mercurial beauty named Layla. He composed long, lush, embarrassingly honest poems in her honor, turning up every day to profess his love. When Layla’s father found out, he was livid. A lowly poet for his daughter? Never. He married her off and sent her away, at which point Qays went crazy. In one version of the story, they were simply the sweetest of childhood friends. In another version, Layla was smitten but passive, and so she died of a broken heart, leaving Qays to wander the desert until he collapsed, lifeless, on her grave. In another still, Layla was passionate but royally pissed off that Qays had played her father and her family so wrong. Qays challenged her husband to a duel, and lost. At the precise moment her captor’s sword pierced her lover’s heart, Layla perished. All that remained were those mad poems and a spate of exchanged letters, an accidental archive of unhinged emotions, which were repeated like rumors and eventually set down in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindi, Azerbaijani, and more.

In Arabic, Majnun Layla means “to be possessed by madness for Layla.” As a story, it is the basis of some of the oldest romantic epics in the world, an off-kilter account of reckless, blindsiding love that reads like the Romeo and Juliet of the region, except that it predates Shakespeare by a good thousand years. During a dynamic Saturday morning lecture in late May, the Lebanese writer and literary scholar Tarek El-Ariss traced a lively history of Majnun Layla up through the present day. Delving into the early videos of Akram Zaatari, the plays of Ziad Rahbani, and the novels of Hoda Barakat and Hanan al-Shaykh, Ariss characterized the story’s madness as a site of transgression and subversion that had been radically reconfigured in contemporary art as an explosive space for the articulation of sexual desires, actions, and identities, which, across much of the Arab world, fall outside the rules of society and the laws of the state.

Left: Writer and scholar Tarek El-Ariss. Right: Artist Wael Shawky.

Drawn from a chapter in his book The Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, Ariss’s talk came at the tail end of Home Works 6, an eruption of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and debates that carried on for fifteen days last month in Beirut. Established eleven years ago as the follow-up to a series of public space projects organized by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, Home Works happens every few years, or whenever Lebanon’s turbulent political situation allows. In energy and magnetism, it is like a biennial, except that it genuinely responds to the needs of the city and creates an incredible sense of urgency around the issues at stake among the actors in Beirut’s art scene.

Atypical in its bookishness, Ariss’s lecture was nonetheless characteristic of Home Works 6 as a whole, a fine example of a notably cerebral art scene (think Walid Raad, think Jalal Toufic) allowing for some emotional leakage while turning its attention to issues of difference and desire that have long been locally neglected. The decision to revisit recent histories of cultural production in Beirut, which remain far from settled in the narrative badlands of Lebanon’s long civil war, was also emblematic, and new. This time around, Home Works was erudite, intense, affective, and exhausting. The schedule may have seemed random at a glance, but it was deceptively well structured as it worked its way through a constellation of unstated but beautifully arranged ideas related to trial, reenactment, transitional justice, crimes of passion, the body, gender trouble, love in abundance, and the fast dwindling efficacy (or devastating collapse) of intellectual and ideological elites.

Opening night performance of Joe Namy's Automobile.

“Part of the concept was to the make residents of Beirut feel foreign in their own city.” That was Matthias Lilienthal at the start of the whole shebang. A theater director and dramaturge, Lilienthal is currently running year two of Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school, the Home Workspace Program. As part of the curriculum, fourteen students created new works for Lilienthal’s X-Apartments project, which involves making art in private homes, usually in dicey neighborhoods, which audiences are invited to see, two by two, as part of a walking tour (each piece has a fixed duration of eight minutes). Previously realized in cities such as Berlin, Istanbul, and São Paulo, the Beirut version took up residence in Bourj Hammoud, the city’s densely packed Armenian district, and Khandaq al-Ghamiq (“deep trench” in Arabic), the heartland of Hezbollah’s main rival (and occasional ally), Harakat Amal.

X-Apartments rustled up controversy as soon as it began on May 12. The students had been hating the idea for months, I later discovered, when Lilienthal let me sit in on a meeting with them, where they mulled over what had worked and what hadn’t. (By that point they were all willing to accept that it had been a good challenge and had pushed them places they wouldn’t have otherwise gone.) Many of the people who took the tours, and even more who didn’t, used terms like “poverty tourism,” “exploitation,” “voyeurism,” and “mean-spirited manipulation” to describe what they saw. Lilienthal, obviously, had a different take.

“The art scene here has been very concerned with the critique of images,” he said. “X-Apartments is totally the opposite, because the images are very messy. It’s the opposite of the art practice that is happening in Beirut. It’s the opposite of Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Rabih Mroué. I wanted to introduce other views on art practice.” In doing so, his students not only discovered a cast of endlessly fascinating characters; they also brushed up against a hidden edifice of violence, misogyny, and racism. In Khandaq al-Ghamiq, Raed Motor pulled viewers through a haunting evocation of domestic violence. In Bourj Hammoud, Liane al-Ghusain and Stefan Tarnowski explored the dangers of mythologizing machismo. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, meanwhile, took the news of a recent police raid on a gay cinema in the neighborhood and turned it into a defiant tribute to queer film.

Left: Artist Kader Attia with Beirut Art Center director Sandra Dagher. Right: Novelist and playwright Hoda Barakat 1.

On May 14, Christine Tohme, Ashkal Alwan’s indefatigable director, marked the launch of Home Works 6 with a raucous block party, featuring a performance by the artist Joe Namy and a concert (pushed inside, due to a flash of rain) featuring the bombastic Egyptian mahraganat of musicians Sadat El 3alamy and Amr 7a7a. On May 17, curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh opened a terrific, untitled exhibition, which marshaled the talents of artists such as Raad, Ali Cherri, Cao Fei, Iman Issa, Basim Magdy, Wael Shawky, Song Ta, and Wang Ningde to capture the mood and circumstance of three historical shows—the first Arab Art Biennial, held in Baghdad in 1974; the inaugural Alexandria Biennale, staged in Egypt’s second largest city in 1955; and “China/Avant-Garde,” an exhibition at Beijing’s National Gallery that was shut down by the authorities on the day it opened in 1989. Conceived as a series of reenactments, it was the first time curatorial thought had been so vividly woven into a Home Works exhibition.

“The art scene in Beirut has been very charged with the archive, with work on the civil war,” said Fetouh. “This exhibition proposes another position absolutely. There isn’t a single reference to the civil war. This is a statement. Because I think the art scene here is changing. I wanted people to think about art. I wanted to create a new geography. I wanted people to think about politics in a different way. I wanted to open Home Works in a different direction.” After seeing the show, one artist told me: “Home Works is about urgency again, about the need for doing things now, about artists getting out of their comfort zones.”

During the last edition, in 2010, there was a lurking suspicion that the forum had been hijacked by the international art world. The art scene in Beirut was ascendant then, there was suddenly a market to contend with, and so the event became an occasion for doing business. The level of discourse, meanwhile, felt flat and generic. This time around, the lineup of contributors and guests was no less international, but their engagement was somehow more easygoing, sensitive, and informed. The crowd of visitors swelled and settled. People dropped into town casually and fell into the rhythm of the event, including Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver, Kasia Kedszisz from Tate Modern, Eungie Joo, Okwui Enwezor, Maria Lind, the Stedelijk Museum’s Jelle Bouwhuis, Mai Abu ElDahab, Peter Eleey from MoMA PS1, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi and Judith Greer of the Sharjah Art Foundation, dealer Imane Farès from Paris, and curator Aleya Hamza, who, in September, is opening a new gallery in Cairo called Gypsum.

Left: Curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh. Right: Artist and researcher Catarina Simao.

And so, in and around dance pieces by Meg Stuart and Boris Charmatz, nocturnal walking tours with the writer Ghalya Saadawi, and a charmed performance by Lara Khaldi and Yazan Khalili grafting love letters onto an ill-fated political union, Home Works 6 raced through what seemed like some of the most complicated conflicts on earth: Romania (Milo Rau’s film The Last Days of the Ceausescus), Indonesia (Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing), Mozambique (Catarina Simão’s incredible archival footage of the revolutionary leader Samora Machel interrogating traitors), Iraq, Algeria, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and everywhere, always, Palestine (particularly crushing in Mahdi Fleifel’s cinematic portrait of a young man’s ruin in the Ain al-Helweh refugee camp).

Out in the world, the Syrian civil war continued to bleed into Lebanon from the north, east, and within. By the time Home Works 6 ended, rockets were falling on the southern suburbs of Beirut. Earlier on, Rania Stephan debuted a riveting video on the exiled Syrian dissident Samar Yazbek, who spoke of “a hurricane of atrocity and violence, a programmed, intellectual strategy of destruction by a gang, a family, and a military mafia protecting its interests and investments. I want to tell you something,” she added. “The astounding thing about the Syrian revolution is that it is a rural revolution of marginalized people who said ‘No’ to slavery. They are more honorable and noble than the elite. They are artists in their essence. The Syrian people are not just making their revolution. They are writing an epic.”

If that weren’t tragedy enough, Home Works drew to a close on May 26 with a performance by Rabih Mroué, possibly his best to date, which takes up the story of his brother, Yasser, who was shot in the head by a sniper on the day of their grandfather’s assassination. (Yasser survived, but the right side of his body was paralyzed.) Illuminating the terrible damage done to a society, a culture, and a cause by targeting intellectuals and killing ideas, Mroué’s piece raises some of the same difficult questions—and plumbs some of the same emotional depths—as Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater. As Mroué bounded onstage at the end to kneel at his brother’s side and strum his guitar, the lasting image was of a love certainly different, but just as fierce, and just as shattering, as the one that runs through the history of Majnun Layla.

Left: Artist Ahmet Ögüt with Rijin Sahakian of Echo for Contemporary Iraqi Art. Right: Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.

Left: Artist Ali Cherri with dealer Imane Farès. Right: Artist Wang Ningde.

Left: Artist and Home Workspace Program participant Romain Hamard with Home Works 6 assistant curator Suzy Halajian. Right: Artist and 98weeks cofounder Marwa Arsanios.

Left: Writer and scholar Fares Chalabi with Beirut Art Center executive director Nada Ghosn. Right: Writer Rayya Badran with Garine Aivazian of the Delfina Foundation.

Left: Theater director Matthias Lilienthal, resident producer of the 2012–2013 Home Workspace Program, with artist and Home Workspace Program participant Urok Shirhan. Right: Opening night with Sadat El 3alamy and DJ Amr 7a7a.

Left: Filmmaker Jowe Harfouche with Ashkal Alwan's Victoria Lupton. Right: Artist Khalil Rabah.

Left: Artist and musician Mazen Kerbaj during Wormholes Electric. Right: Artist Maha Maamoun.