PRINT October 2006

Christine Tohme

I DON’T THINK WE’VE EVER lived through a postwar period. There is no “postwar” in Lebanon, only pauses. I don’t think artists have reached a notion of time and space where they can get past the civil war.

There was the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, the Israeli invasion in 1982, and then the “Grapes of Wrath” campaign in 1996. The effects of this ongoing state of conflict are seen in the history of Ashkal Alwan, the nonprofit arts organization I direct, and in its projects. The Home Works Forum on Cultural Practices—a conference with performances and exhibitions attended by artists, curators, critics, and gallerists from around the world—has taken place three times and has been postponed on each occasion. The first time, in 2001, it was postponed because of the outbreak of the second intifada; in 2003 because of the war in Iraq; and in 2005 because of the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The violence has assumed a predictable pattern, making us feel as if we are living by a volcano, and that every now and then it must erupt in order for us to live again. Art is created here in a state of constant instability, complete unpredictability, and continual interruption, yet the focal point of the artists’ work does not change. The core is the same, only with different articulations.

Today the art of Beirut is internationally visible. But as recently as the early 1990s the city had no cultural institutions outside the commercial gallery system to support contemporary artists, organize projects, or build international relationships. Ashkal Alwan was created as an informal initiative with this in mind in 1994, a few years after the end of the civil war; it was founded by artist Marwan Rechmaoui, graphic designer Rania Tabbara, cultural activist Mustapha Yamout, writer Leila Mroueh, and me. (Now the board includes artist and filmmaker Joana Hadjithomas, artist and filmmaker Ghassan Salhab, artist Lina Saneh, and Masha Refka.) With no office at first, I worked out of cafés and my car. Our first project, in 1995, was a weeklong exhibition of twenty artists in the Sanayeh Garden, which dates back to the Ottoman period. But the “Hamra Street Project,” 2000, was a turning point in our work: a multidisciplinary effort involving video, photography, installations, and publications. The prominence of video is significant because only two decades ago there was no video scene in Beirut at all. It developed only in the late ’80s with Mohamed Soueid, one of its pioneers. Then, artists like Akram Zaatari and Soueid worked for television, and they used that experience as a tool in their art. Video art developed and flourished because it was accessible and immediate.

It’s worthwhile to note that because of the lack of designated cultural spaces in Beirut, public space is an important sphere of artistic activity; in the absence of formal networks, artists have created their own associations and collaborations. Ashkal Alwan works within this scenario, but we have created an infrastructure, albeit one that is loose, nonlinear, and necessarily flexible. We’re not alone, either. Among other groups that have formed since we started is the Arab Image Foundation, which was established in 1996 by Zaatari, photographer and filmmaker Fouad Elkoury, and photographer Samer Mohdad with the objective of preserving and promoting photography in the Middle East and North Africa. Beirut DC was founded in 1999 by a group of filmmakers and advocates; it produces independent films and holds film festivals and workshops.

At the start of this most recent crisis, Ashkal Alwan successfully raised funds for refugee relief. But soon I felt frustrated, needing to return to my work as a curator. (In part, I was feeling that the city’s whole population consisted of nothing but the displaced and those assisting the displaced.) And so I set out to find funding for artists to produce work about the current situation. I decided these should be two-year projects, so people have time to reflect and to obtain some critical distance. I have approached numerous artists already, including Salhab, Soueid, Wael Noureddine, Ziad Antar, and Rania Stephan. In addition, ten young artists, most of them recent university graduates, came to me with a proposal, asking Ashkal Alwan to use its network to spread the word about their work. I decided to take on their project and help them with funding. I immediately started sending e-mails, making calls. The Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development has provided a grant so each of the artists can create a nine-minute video; all ten works will be presented together. These are the voices I want to hear—individual voices, not clichéd or stereotyped. I don’t want to see the war through the eyes of mainstream media propaganda anymore; it has become completely pornographic and dangerous. I am not pitting artistic documents against the media; I am just saying that this is not my game.

We have a lot to do now. What is the meaning of cease-fire? Of truce? Did the war stop? During the bombardment, I had no sense of time; I had only a sense of space. My home, my office—these were my two reference points. I lost everything else, as if it were erased from my memory. So now it’s as if I am excavating my memory again. Resistance, for me, is not a new term. In this region, you resist from the time you are born, from day one. I’ve been doing this in my work for thirteen years. And everybody is doing this: the carpenter, the journalist, the curator—everybody. This is not new. Every time you lose everything, you build it again, and every time it turns out to be much more solid. It is an accumulation.

—As told to Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Christine Tohme is an independent curator and director of Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese association for the plastic arts, based in Beirut.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is the arts and culture editor for the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.