Contemporary arts journal chronicles Beirut's creativity
Canadian publication shares capital's dynamism with the world

by Ramsay Short

Other Article by Ramsay Short
Not a dying art: Political posters combine creativity, propaganda, public debate
© Ramsay Short 2003 -2021

Beirut has long been a city known for its intellectual creativity. Since the civil war's end, that creativity has been witnessing a resurgence.
The reasons for this, Stephen Wright - contributing editor to Canadian contemporary art journal Parachute - explains, are "the significant reserve of cultural capital and a deep seated intellectual tradition; the relative freedom of expression in Beirut … and the city's history as something of a crossroads."

The healthy artistic environment that now exists has increasingly brought together diverse forms of writing, images, urban spaces, subjectivity, daily life, ideas of change, friendship and exchange.

As Chantal Pontbriand, editor in chief of Parachute says: "In this milieu it is possible to articulate a critique of the modernist vision of history and of the cleavages between past and present, history and the future, and the local versus the global.

"Through artistic practice Beirut has become a site for working out and articulating this critique."

And yet there exists no regular critical artistic journal - no archive chronicling the work, issues or even events of artists, academics and writers, for themselves or the public.

There are newspaper supplements and magazine articles, but no recurring publication - nothing which allows the intellectual creativity that does exist here the capacity for self-reflection, absorption and understanding of ideas.

Which is one of two reasons why the new issue of Parachute, dedicated to Beirut and launched at Agial Gallery in Hamra on Saturday night as part of the FrancoBis Beyrouth 2002, is so important.

Parachute 108 Beirut, as it is called, examines the specific artistic practices developed by Beirut's artists, as well as others from the Lebanese diaspora, including Walid Sadek, Akram Zaatari, Mohammed Soueid, Mahmoud Hojeij, Michel Lasserre and Paola Yacoub, Walid Raad, Bilal Khbeiz, Rabih Mroue, Tony Chakar, Jayce Salloum and Mona Hatoum.

Pontbriand founded Parachute magazine in 1975 with the aim of chronicling contemporary art issues and evoking debate. Dealing mainly with the visual arts, it attempts to develop new critical methodologies and broaden geographical and cultural horizons. Once a year Parachute dedicates an issue to a city where artistic practices of particular interest are in the process of developing.

"The situation in Beirut is so exciting," Pontbriand explains. "With this issue I am trying to reach out to people not just through interspersed articles on a single artist, but a whole book on many different artists.

"The reader is therefore being given a path through the jungle that is contemporary art in Lebanon and worldwide, and through that contemporary art a path opens up onto the jungle of the contemporary world."

The journal succeeds in this. Its breadth of contributors illustrates the shifts occurring in Beirut's art world and, consequently, cultural life. The shifts, as Pontbriand calls them, of "people meeting ideas and ideas meeting each other."
Many of the articles deal with the particular discourses which contain and dictate critical discussion and art in Beirut, such as the rebuilding of the city center and the psychological effects of the war.

Artist, writer and AUB professor Walid Sadek contributes an essay on the subject of rumor as it relates to artists' work and working environments in Beirut.

MIT doctoral student on contemporary Arab art, Sarah Rogers, discusses the work of Lebanese artist Walid Raad and his Atlas Project - slides and video clips that, she writes, ask the question, "How does one witness the passing of an extremely violent present?"

A particularly strong contribution is by three of the most prominent video artists in the country - Mahmoud Hojeij, Mohammed Soueid and Akram Zaatari (founder of the Arab Image Foundation) - in the form of a three-part conversation detailing their work and the role and history of video, film and documentary-making as a critical art form in Lebanon.

They explain, for example, how video production was affected by two major factors:

"First, the absence of any past tradition of filmmaking in the country allowed artists a certain freedom in working with form, exploring video not as a substitute for film but as a specific medium.

"Second, the dominance of conventional television language (particularly in the context of war) prompted the exploration of new ways of telling beyond using video to showcase evidence."

Local writer, poet and installation artist Bilal Khbeiz contributes an incisive essay entitled Beirut's costly modernity.

Architect and Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Hashim Sarkis, writes on architectural issues in the country, while a painting, printed over a series of pages, dealing with Beirut's urban setting is included by Montreal-based artist Gilbert Boyer.

Parachute 108 Beirut is interspersed throughout with photographs, documentary stills, paintings and drawings about the city and its people, by many of the artists involved. The journal is also a beautifully designed book, printed simultaneously in both French and English.

As a forum for analysis, the voicing of ideas and the discussion of topics that are sometimes controversial because they are not often spoken of in the limited public sphere in Lebanon, Parachute works, and is in fact a fundamental reference for anyone interested in art and artistic practice in the country.

One entry is an original project contributed by Amale Andraos and the founders of group LEFT, international Lebanese architects Naji Moujaes, Makram al-Kadi and Ziad Jamaleddine. They designed a series of fictional postcards that intentionally push the unspoken boundaries of cultural and political issues specific to Lebanon, those now considered taboo. Civil marriage is one example.

But fearing government prosecution here, the group pulled the two most controversial postcards from the magazine before publication. The cards, which can be viewed on their website, show in one instance a mock-up of a gay pride parade through Beirut, and in the other a marijuana leaf in the place of the cedar tree on the Lebanese flag. It is one example of artistic expression that has not passed under the radar screens of the local authorities.

The second reason why Parachute 108 Beirut is so important is that, as an internationally sold art journal, it gives Lebanese artists, local contemporary art, and the current cultural debate here exposure to a world-wide audience.

As Pontbriand points out, therefore, the book "is like hypertext" (words on websites which, once clicked on, are a link to greater detail) - it is a subject in itself, but once opened leads to further subjects and further debate.

For instance, it indicates how much the Beirut contemporary artist has been molded by the civil war, and as Elias Khoury says, quoted in Stephen Wright's contextual essay: "When civil wars are banished from writing, they seek refuge in speech. When they are erased from memory, they dwell in the subconscious."

Parachute 108 Beirut is ultimately a brilliant introduction to the situation of Beirut's contemporary artists, what drives them, and their work itself, as well as being a valuable reference work.

Ramsay Short is a writer and journalist of British/Lebanese heritage. He has been writing for The Daily Star English language newspaper in Beirut for the last two years, and has been published previously in The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday broadsheets in the UK, and The International Herald Tribune internationally, as well as Aishti magazine in Lebanon. He writes primarily on the contemporary arts, culture, music and political and social trends in Lebanon and the Middle East. Ramsay is currently researching a historical novel on the life of a man born between two worlds - the West and East in a time of confusion and upheaval.

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