Shuruq Harb, All the Names, 2011/2021, steel and vinyl, 9' 2 1⁄4" × 16' 6 7⁄8".

Shuruq Harb, All the Names, 2011/2021, steel and vinyl, 9' 2 1⁄4" × 16' 6 7⁄8".

Shuruq Harb

The showstopper of Shuruq Harb’s “Ghost at the Feast” was a freestanding wall full of names and dates, 207 of them in total, placed flush on small rectangular plates made of steel, paint, and vinyl. Taller than a person and wider than a truck, the work bisected the largest exhibition hall in the Beirut Art Center, obscuring one of the doors to the venue’s theater, where rights groups such as Legal Agenda were meeting to discuss issues well beyond art. The nameplates, made in the style of the city’s neighborhood-level street signage, featured crisp white print on deep-blue backgrounds—reminiscent, somehow, of a gentler era in the life of the city and of the region. For this regal and politely imposing piece, All the Names, 2021, Harb replaced the names and numbers of every Levantine rue and secteur with the name of a person and their life span, for instance IBN RUSHD 1126–1198, MOZART 1756–1791, ROSA LUXEMBURG 1871–1919, MICHEL AFLAQ 1910–1989, PATRICE LUMUMBA 1925–1961, EDWARD SAID 1935–2003. The combination of the names of biblical figures, Sufi mystics, scientists from the golden age of Islam, Iraqi novelists, European composers, freedom fighters from African liberation movements, and dissidents from the more recent and mostly failed revolutions of the Arab world boggled the mind and fired the imagination. What utopia could bring them all together?

The unlikely answer here was Ramallah, Palestine, Harb’s hometown. In 2005, the municipality undertook a massive urban-reorganization effort, naming and numbering all of the streets in preparation for a new map of the city. Political upheavals and financial obstacles stalled the project many times, but it was finally completed in 2010, with the names in Harb’s piece (among many others) tying these historical figures to actual events in Ramallah’s past or to the fuzzier aspirations of its present residents.

All the Names was one of five major works from the past eleven years gathered together in Harb’s first institutional exhibition. Produced at a time when, because of the pandemic, neither the artist nor her works could travel—the older pieces were here re-created in new iterations—“Ghost at the Feast” took the form of a love letter between two cities, with Ramallah witnessing a fresh war and Beirut sinking further into disaster as the show was on view. Given the circumstances (fuel shortages, the hoarding of medicines, the total abdication of government responsibility), to be able to see Harb’s exhibition at all seemed nothing short of miraculous—with images and installations physically manifested and videos in working order. On view were three of the latter: about archival obsession (The Keeper, 2010–14), suicide (The Jump, 2021), and a punk Palestinian teenager seeing herself through the eyes of Israeli trance-music culture (The White Elephant, 2018). Meanwhile, The Elephant and the Dove, 2021, a PVC balloon of an enormous bird standing on the back of an elephant, levitated breezily over the space.

This show was long overdue. Harb has been mining important territory for years, exploring specific urban geographies and their relationship to flights of political and artistic imagination. Like many arts organizations in the local cultural ecosystem, the Beirut Art Center faces an uncertain future. One of its founding missions was to give artists like Harb—early and midcareer artists from the Middle East—the attention they deserve. It was bittersweet to see that objective so fully realized in a show that tackled so directly what the exhibition pamphlet describes as Harb’s interpretation of “a profound sense of loss and a culture that comes out of and resists duress.”