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The Best of Beirut

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, Installation Overview, courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Selections tours Beirut’s galleries in  search of this season’s standout shows

Beirut

Rehearsals for a Setting
Agial Art Gallery
February 16 to March 5

Omar Fakhoury, Man Raising his Finger, 200 × 140cm, 2016, courtesy of Agial Art Gallery

Omar Fakhoury,
Man Raising his Finger,
200 × 140cm, 2016,
courtesy of Agial Art Gallery

Lebanese painter Omar Fakhoury’s latest solo show follows on from his last two series, Self-Defense and Vivarium, explorations of military architecture and the small huts constructed in the streets by police and security personnel. In Rehearsals for a Setting, Fakhoury is also concerned with public space and the landmarks that define it — in this instance public monuments. Scattered around the country, often coming to represent a particular neighbourhood and helping to define its political or sectarian leanings, Lebanon’s public monuments are well worthy of study. But Fakhoury isn’t interested in simply cataloguing and reproducing these landmarks. His vivid, startlingly three-dimensional acrylic paintings capture each monument broken down to its most basic formal and materialistic components.

Stripped of their memories, history and political and religious implications, these monuments are reduced to simple geometric shapes. Paintings of pedestals without statues bear titles like Man Raising His Finger and Man Crushing a Helmet and Raising a Flag, drawing attention to what it is that Fakhoury has chosen to exclude from his work, and the simple formula by which such monuments convey their message of heroism, defiance, martyrdom or triumph.


A Closer Look at the Ordinary
Galerie Tanit Beyrouth
February 11 to March 31

Serge Najjar, Walking on a living canvas 2, 143 × 110cm, courtesy of Galerie Tanit Beyrouth

Serge Najjar, Walking on a living canvas 2, 143 × 110cm, courtesy of Galerie Tanit Beyrouth

Serge Najjar has come a long way since he took up photography as a hobby, shooting urban scenes on his iPhone during his commutes to work as a lawyer. The award-winning artist’s latest solo show echoes his enduring fascination with the geometry of urban architecture, capturing diminutive figures dwarfed by the city they’ve created.

Najjar’s talent lies as much in patience as in his ability to frame a scene from an angle that can make a familiar scene appear fresh. In each photograph the figure that lends it a sense of temporarily and scale is captured at the perfect moment. A man in traditional dress is framed perfectly in a window while descending a flight of stairs. An elderly construction worker places the penultimate section into a wall of triangular plastic jigsaw pieces, his upper half captured in the space where the final puzzle piece will go. Three labourers laugh together, seated in the narrow slits of windows in an unfinished building.

A Closer Look at the Ordinary is not a particularly intellectually challenging show, but it’s aesthetically and emotional rewarding. Najjar succeeds in transforming the mundane into the magical.


Kardeşim Beyrut
Art on 56th
April 1 to 23

Yigit Yazici, Untitled, fine art print on paper, 83 × 95cm, 2016, courtesy of Art on 56th

Yigit Yazici, Untitled, fine art print on paper, 83 × 95cm, 2016, courtesy of Art on 56th

Kardeşim Beyrut — which translates as Beirut brothers — brings together three Turkish artists whose work shares a contemporary pop art aesthetic.

Self-taught Austrian-Turkish painter Pinar du Pre uses a mixture of traditional and digital techniques to create layered canvasses bearing colourful portraits. Capturing instantly recognisable celebrities in a riot of neon hues, she reflects on shifting styles, techniques and attitudes, playing with retro and futuristic approaches.

Baris Saribas’ work combines pop art and expressionist techniques, culminating in a darker aesthetic. His disquieting works explore peace and destruction, depicting aircrafts, hot air balloons, explosions and rainbows in unexpected and jarring combinations. Planes hover in mid-air as bombs fall from their bellies like rain, harmless and weightless in the moments before impact.

Yigit Yazici’s work seeks to capture quotidian objects from unexpected perspectives. His palette of electric neon hues and his bold, often overlapping lines create surreal renderings of everything from trucks and motorbikes, to the interior of a barbershop. For this exhibition he has created a special series of Beirut-themed works, including pop art portraits of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


Stretching Thoughts
Ayyam Gallery Beirut
January 21 to April 2

Nadim Karam, Neglected Thoughts,  steel and concrete, 2015, courtesy of Ayyam Gallery Beirut

Nadim Karam, Neglected Thoughts,
steel and concrete, 2015, courtesy of Ayyam Gallery Beirut

At the centre of Lebanese multimedia artist Nadim Karam’s latest solo show is an installation that is altogether less controlled and ornate than the artist’s usual sculptural work. From a distance, Neglected Thoughts resembles a tangle of willow twigs or an enormous bird’s nest, floating weightlessly inside a simple metal frame. In fact, the installation is a tangle of rusty twisted rebar, lengths old piping and lumps of concrete — rubble from destroyed buildings.

The entire mass must be incredibly heavy, but, suspended from lengths of metal wire, it floats incongruously, more like smoke than the aftermath of an explosion.

The pieces on show, which include large-scale, richly textured paintings in dull gold hues and two metal sculptures, in addition to the installation, explore the human mind’s boundless capacity for imagination. A simple motif — an androgynous figure with wispy, cloudlike tangle of lines expanding from the neck in place of a head — is repeated throughout the show. Karam likens the wispy, unconstrained thoughts in his work to the increasingly porous national borders and boundaries that are being traversed today, whether through commerce, globalisation or migration.


Landversation Beirut
Beirut Art Center
February 10 to April 2

Otobong Nkanga, Landversation Beirut, installation and fresco, mixed media, 2016, courtesy of Beirut Art Center

Otobong Nkanga, Landversation Beirut, installation and fresco, mixed media, 2016, courtesy of Beirut Art Center

Nigeria-born, Belgium-based artist Otobong Nkanga’s first show in Lebanon explores human relationships to the land they inhabit and that sustains them. Intimately connected to Lebanon, Landversation Beirut is a new iteration of the work originally presented at the 31st Sao Paulo Biennial in 2014, entitled Landversation.

Exploring the dichotomy of our dependence on the land as a support system and simultaneous destruction of the natural resources that sustain us, the show features several large-scale installations, as well as series of photographs. In her eponymous installation, Nkanga uses three crescent-shaped tables to elicit questions relating to the notion of land in Lebanon from the perspectives of ecology, law and activism. A second installation, Dream in 1m2, requires viewers to ascend a flight of stairs, step through a trapdoor in the wall and descend into a dimly lit dream world, surrounded by blackboards adorned with chalk drawings, representing the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of the landscape.

Interactive talks each Thursday, Saturday and Sunday allow visitors to enter into a dialogue with local gardeners, activists and lawyers whose knowledge overlaps and informs the subject matter of the show.


Fortress in a Corner Bishop Takes Over
Sfeir-Semler Gallery
January 14 to May 7

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, Installation Overview, courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Marwan Rechmaoui, Blazon, Installation Overview, courtesy of Sfeir-Semler Gallery

Marwan Rechmaoui spent ten years researching the work in his latest solo show, an enormous installation called Blazon, an abstract map of Beirut conceptualised as an army. Fortress in a Corner, Bishop Takes Over makes interesting viewing in relation to Fakhoury’s Rehearsals for a Setting. Rechmaoui builds up a picture of Beirut by dividing the city into 59 neighbourhoods, representing each with a single shield. More than 400 silk banners, embroidered with words, buildings, people or monuments associated with various neighbourhoods hang from the ceiling, creating a fascinating visual map of a city divided along countless geographical, social, religious and political lines.

Taking its inspiration from Beirut’s turbulent history, as well as the coats of arms of Medieval kingdoms, the installation breaks the city down and rebuilds it not according to its contemporary geography but according to the historical origins and associations of its place names, all of which are based on geological, sectarian, horticultural, architecture or family elements. Rechmaoui’s work is an elaborate, abstract and challenging overview of a city that visitors will simultaneously recognise and see from an entirely new perspective.


A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One – on – One Issue #35, on page 30-35.

Filed under: Art

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India Stoughton graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. During her course she spent a semester studying in Damascus, where she developed a deep interest in Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi art and culture. Having traveled extensively in the Middle East, spending time in Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar, as well as Syria, she is currently based in Lebanon, where she works as an art and culture reporter.

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