Waddah Faris, Max Ernst taking belly dance lessons, The Fontana Cabaret, Beirut, 1969, gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 16 1/2".

Waddah Faris, Max Ernst taking belly dance lessons, The Fontana Cabaret, Beirut, 1969, gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 16 1/2".

Waddah Faris

Saleh Barakat gallery

Waddah Faris, Max Ernst taking belly dance lessons, The Fontana Cabaret, Beirut, 1969, gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 16 1/2".

In the fall of 1969, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen traveled to Lebanon to perform in the Jeita Grotto, a series of limestone caves that span an underground river some ten miles north of Beirut. Stockhausen’s entourage included the pop singer Françoise Hardy, the gallerist and socialite Brigitte Schehadé, and the Surrealists Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, and André Masson. When Schehadé introduced Ernst and his wife to a young local who was hanging around the Saint-George Hotel, they asked him if he could show them more of the country.

That young man was Waddah Faris, an Iraqi artist who was born in Aleppo, Syria, worked in Beirut as a graphic designer, and would later, in 1972, open Contact, a groundbreaking and irreverent gallery that captured the artistic energy and cross-disciplinary experimentation in the cultural life of the Lebanese capital in the years before it was torn up by the civil war that started in 1975. Faris, by some coincidence, had designed the poster for Stockhausen’s concerts. He had also seen the guest list and knew who was coming to town. Ernst, as it happened, was his hero. Ahead of his visit, Faris, a painter and amateur photographer who then took pictures for fun and usually did so with borrowed equipment, had decided to buy his own camera, just in case he happened across his idol. Now Ernst was asking him for a proper tour, the opportunity to meet local artists, and maybe, possibly, the chance to see some belly dancing? Faris obliged, and began producing what eventually turned out to be an enormous body of photographs—portraits not only of the European visitors but of virtually all the renegades and luminaries of Lebanese art, literature, theater, journalism, and politics at the time. Most of them were taken as slides he never bothered to develop or print.

Close to a hundred of those photographs from the 1960s and early ’70s, selected by the artist and lushly printed in Barcelona, where he is now based, gave the exhibition “Beirut, The City of the World’s Desire: The Chronicles of Waddah Faris (1960–1975)” its narrative spine and exuberant atmosphere. Faris captured something vital and specific about an era that has since become difficult to recall clearly and without nostalgia. The sheer force of personality apparent in his pictures of the artists Saloua Raouda Choucair, Huguette Caland, Helen Khal, and a young beauty named Mona Hatoum is striking enough. But the genius of the show was that Faris’s photos ran parallel to a second story told through a staggeringly powerful selection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures made by the subjects of his photographs in the years when he photographed them.

It added up to a museum-quality exhibition, cheekily hung salon style. A jumble of artworks on every wall offset the neatness of Faris’s images arranged in simple grids. But the show was serious in its approach to a fitful, fragmented art history. The palpable joys and formal quirks of Faris’s photography opened up a bracingly clear-sighted view of a period that was as politically explosive as it was delusionally glamorous. The artworks on view, acting as counterpoints to his pictures, also caught many of the artists in some of the best moments of their careers: Among these were an alien face with bloodshot eyes by Caland; a largely blue geometric abstraction by Saliba Douaihy; ruminative paintings by Chafic Abboud and Nabil Nahas; and an utterly charming, oddly tribal painting of a black forest by Said Akl. One of Khal’s paintings shows a nude with her back turned to the viewer. No one was making art that looked anything like the work of Ernst, Masson, or Tanning. But to judge from the expression on Ernst’s face in one of Faris’s photographs, as he dances onstage at the seedy Cabaret Fontana with a robust Egyptian belly dancer, the visitor enjoyed himself immensely.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie