A brief note on Lebanese Expatriates in France

28Nov09

War sells. After a war, first come the United Nations, and then the curators,” said Ziad Antar, a Lebanese artist living in France. “Lebanon has seen many wars, but there’s more to the country than that.

Alice Pfeiffer conducts a special report for the New York Times

More there may be, but when political conflict becomes part of daily existence, artists inevitably reflect that reality.

Today half of the Lebanese population lives in exile. The country’s population is about four million, with the same number dispersed around the rest of the world, said Abdallah Naaman, cultural attaché at the Lebanese Embassy in France, and a specialist in Lebanese history.

“The feeling of belonging is always subjective,” Mr. Naaman said. “Lebanon is like an elevator, its population is constantly leaving and coming back.”

In France, the Lebanese community numbers about 100,000, including some 80 established artists who, he said, are receiving increasing international attention. Several, including the video artist couple Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige were among those chosen for Lebanon’s first ever Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Paris-based photographers were also well represented in the Arab Image Foundation’s display at this year’s Paris Photo fair.

Their work, although diverse in medium, tone and approach, is often marked by recurring images of deracination, conflict, travel, war and adjustment to foreign cultures. It is a truly diasporic art.

Mr. Antar, a 31-year-old photographer and video artist, moved from Saida, South Lebanon, to France at age 23 to study cinema at the École Supérieure d’Études Cinématographiques. For many French-speaking Lebanese, “the country is a popular destination because of the language, the low university costs,” he said in an interview, but also because “for a long time, there was no established art scene in Lebanon, which made France even more appealing.”

After a year-long residency program at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Mr. Antar was chosen to be one of the 50 international artists in this year’s triennial survey of contemporary art, “Younger than Jesus,” at the New Museum in New York. On Sept. 24 the Pompidou Center honored him with a solo retrospective screening of all his videos.

Mr. Antar does not treat war directly; rather he keeps a sort of journal of the country, in which fragments of everyday life are extrapolated, aestheticized and removed from a narrative context. These range from city landscapes, shot on old film in reportage style, to found Israeli combat rations photographed against a blank, white background, halfway between glossy advertising and mug shot.

Adopting a quasi-nonchalant style reminiscent of the Still Lives of Louise Lawler, or Martin Parr, Mr. Antar deliberately avoids sentimentality and pathos, leaving his audience to make its own judgements.

It was never my aim to represent war, until it came into my house,” he said, referring to the July 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when he, like many others, witnessed the bombardments first hand. “I don’t view my work as a form of documentation — but later, art naturally expresses a form of reflection of past events.”

In contrast to that approach, videos by Ms. Hadjithomas and Mr. Joreige attempt to challenge the viewer and empower individuals. Both born in Beirut in 1969, they analyze conflict on a micro level.

Their show, “We Could Be Heroes Just For One Day,” which ran from December to March at the Paris Modern Art Museum, combined mini-documentaries of individuals affected by different aspects of the war, with urban post-war landscapes borrowing codes from kitsch tourist advertising.

The central piece was an aerial view of Beirut mounted on a magnetized mirror and cut in small pieces like a puzzle. Viewers were encouraged to shift the pieces around, in so doing revealing themselves in the mirror. The message: Behind the seemingly distant conflict, there are human beings. Pierce the surface and you are thrust into the reality of war.

“It was a playful, empowering experience,” said Ms. Hadjithomas in an interview, “part of the art-making process is to decide how the result will address and implicate the audience. It is different showing art here in Paris: When we show art in Lebanon, I know how the audience will react.”

“It is natural for war to be omnipresent in the work, more or less visibly,” Mr. Naaman said. “People are toughened. Think of all the families who have had to change their windows 10 times.”

In other cases, art becomes an escape, a way of appropriating, creating a stable, alternative reality, as in the case of Tiffany Khalil, 26, aka Tyranny — “Tiffany because my mother loves Audrey Hepburn and Tyr because that’s the port where my family is from, and where I was born,” Ms. Khalil said.

Yet another casualty of Lebanon’s repetitive cycle of wars and tenuous truces, Ms. Khalil spent most of her childhood living between Lebanon and France. From an early age, a big fan of comic strips, she started drawing. “Art was simply plan B after I gave up the idea of being a superhero,” she said. “Instead of saving the world, I created another reality.”

In her paintings, characters that are half-angel, half-devil, battle with imaginary monsters, echoing cartoon strips and street art. “It’s certainly no utopia in here, but it’s a universe that I can make sense of,” she said.

Early next year, Ms. Khalil plans to open an exhibition space in the east end of Paris which will combine shows by up-and-coming artists with an extensive library where, she says, “the books will be displayed like art works.” The aim, she said, is to create an environment in the image of Lebanon, “multi-cultural, contrasted, agitated.”

In a similar spirit, Maria Hibri and Hoda Baroudi, artists who work together under the name “Bokja” — an old Turkish term for the embroidered dowry of a bride — create furniture covered in intricate patchworks.

Their use of different fabrics symbolizes harmonious multiculturalism, and East meets West, they say, their aim being to “modify Kipling’s conclusion: East is East and West is West; and the twain can meet.”



2 Responses to “A brief note on Lebanese Expatriates in France”

  1. 1 Riad

    hehehe you have a point Emilio…

    Some Lebanese living abroad are happy where they’ve managed to make a career, and Lebanon will hopefully be always open to them with welcoming arms.
    Think of the Lebanese that still go back and forth, who actually had to exile 20 years ago; Today Lebanon is home to all these millions of Lebanese who excelled abroad, and rightly should be.

  2. 2 Emilio

    Isn’t the word “exile” used in the article a little harsh? Exile is almost like a form of punishment, where one is not able to return to their home country because they are not allowed. I wouldn’t say that is the case today…


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