Omar Mismar, Fantastical Scene [sic], 2019–20, stone mosaic, 49 5⁄8 × 74 3⁄4".

Omar Mismar, Fantastical Scene [sic], 2019–20, stone mosaic, 49 5⁄8 × 74 3⁄4".

Omar Mismar

Revolving around a film, a fantastical machine, and a series of mosaics crafted from found materials, such as tattoo designs, WhatsApp photos, and text messages, Omar Mismar’s first solo show in his native Lebanon, “Confiscated Imaginaries,” possessed a quality hard to come by in contemporary art of the Middle East: humor. Like a handful of notable artists before him (Ali Cherri, Rayyane Tabet, Akram Zaatari), Mismar started out as a student in the American University of Beirut’s fabled Department of Architecture and Design, a program known for blending formal experimentation with conceptual rigor and fearless critique. But then he left Lebanon for San Francisco and New York, and by the time he returned to Beirut in 2017, his work was freewheeling in its use of media, politically irreverent, and awkwardly funny. Projects emblematic of this tone include those in which the artist variously befriended gun enthusiasts who joke about “holy war” in the Middle East; asked a Mexican actress famous in Lebanon for the Arabic-dubbed versions of her telenovela to address the Lebanese people directly in a language she does not speak; recorded artist friends eating (and excreting) a bean soup sprinkled with gold flakes; and set up a camera obscura inside a U-Haul that he then drove around San Francisco while playing tour guide to people inside the truck.

The works in “Confiscated Imaginaries” were all closely related and stemmed from an initial project revealing both the general challenge of adequately capturing the magnitude of a devastating conflict and the specific impossibility of creating evidence of property ownership to counter a governmental land grab. Around 2015, Mismar turned his attention to the war in Syria, which began as a hopeful uprising in 2011 but quickly devolved into civil war as Bashar al-Assad’s regime exacted a brutal revenge. Thousands of Syrian refugees were living in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where Mismar grew up, some forty miles from Damascus. Moved to consider how the war was seeping into daily life, he brought a camera to a refugee camp, took some pictures, shot some footage, and vowed never to use any of the material (because it was too clichéd). At a time when Assad was actively stripping property rights from the displaced, Mismar asked refugees to draw maps and floor plans of their homes, illustrating their ownership claims. But he didn’t want to show those drawings either. Instead, Mismar constructed a kind of unworkable viewing device based on a slide carousel. In A Dubious Prototype, 2019–20, a mechanical arm randomly selects and illuminates large slides of the refugees’ drawings but never projects them for viewers to see.

To this strange, clunking, conceptually reverberating machine, Mismar added six contemporary riffs on mosaic traditions, mixing expressions of highbrow and lowbrow visual culture. Working with a master mosaicist, he transformed refugees’ stick-and-poke tattoos into patterned bits of stone in I’ll Take Touching You Cold over Never Seeing You, 2019–20. His images included a dagger, a rose, an arrow-pierced heart, and humorous Arabic honorifics and terms of endearment for mothers and lovers, all typical of working-class dialects, such as ABOU RAAD, “father of thunder,” and WAHASHTU AL-AYOUN, “the eyes have missed you.” He did the same with WhatsApp images depicting ancient mosaics that had been looted or destroyed by barrel bombs in Syria, in Looting Scene (Last Seen 2014), 2019–20. And in Fantastical Scene [sic], 2019–20, he played with the iconography of the hunt, which typically takes the form of a lion, al-assad, overwhelming a bull, al-thawr. In Mismar’s version, the heads are swapped so that assad, the lion, surrenders to the bull, whose name in Arabic is a letter shy of the word for revolution, al-thawra. Tying everything together was a riveting thirty-one-minute film, Abou Farid’s War, 2021, assembled from a Zoom conversation between Mismar and an archeological conservator, Abou Farid, who reports on the damage done to the cultural heritage of a smallish town that hosted one of the most extensive mosaics collections in the world. It’s a sobering account until in one fleeting moment, the pupils of a figure on one such mosaic suddenly dart knowingly left to right, as if laughing in spite of all.