‘I am part of a generation of artists and writers who lived 20 years of it and don’t have anything to say but about war.’
|El Bab , Ayman Baalbaki , Farhat Art Museum Collection|
Ayman Baalbaki was born in 1975, the year the Lebanese Civil War started. It is therefore no surprise that he draws his inspiration from war and the related themes of destruction and loss, emptiness, both emotional and physical, retribution and the identity of the victim. Intensely personal and highly cohesive, his latest exhibition at Beirut’s Agial Gallery is marked by the same candor and vulnerability that has defined his previous shows.
In a 2006 interview, Baalbaki stated, ‘The Lebanese don’t want to address the issue of the war.’ It is this denial that he challenges and confronts in this exhibition, in much the same way that Anselm Keifer, who clearly inspires his style, controversially challenged Germany’s collective silence on the issues of the Second World War and the Third Reich.
The exhibition is neatly, almost clinically, separated into two distinct bodies of work, the portraits of dead buildings and those of masked men. Wake Up Sisyphus symbolizes the process of transition from one part of the exhibition to the other.
|El Bab – Detail-|
This brightly coloured installation constitutes a gentle visual bridge between the two parts of the show. Against the backdrop of a building in downtown Beirut, colourful family belongings are packed, and along with rural pets, seem to be ready for the start of a trip. The bright blue sky filled with red flowers is reminiscent of summer holidays in the village.
However, the gaiety of the work belies its poignant autobiographical content, its darkness almost immediately betrayed by its title. Just as the ancient Corinthian king was condemned to perpetually push a rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down each time it reached the top, so too has Baalbaki been condemned to continual displacement every time he settles.
Baalbaki’s family was forced to flee Rass-el-Dikweneh by the outbreak of civil war in 1975. He was only a few months old. They moved to Wadi Abu-Jmil in downtown Beirut, a neighbourhood which became a refuge for those displaced by the war. In 1995 the Baalbakis moved out of Wadi Abu-Jmil to make way for the post-war wave of urban development and the artist experienced a sense of displacement for the first time. This time they moved to Haret Hreik. Five years later, Baalbaki moved to Paris where he lived till 2004 and continued to travel between Beirut and Paris till 2007. In 2006, the Israeli attack on Beirut destroyed Baalbaki’s home in Haret Hreik along with all his belongings. It is this event that has inspired much of Baalbaki’s recent art.
Abbas al Mousawi Street, Yassine Building and Untitled capture not only the physical but also the psychological devastation of the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon. Bold, almost violent neo expressionist brush strokes form dark, featureless buildings, partially or completely destroyed, devoid of life and bleeding, looming against grey skies and dominating the canvas. The plurality and the diminutive size of the paintings that make up Untitled undermine the significance of the destruction of any individual building and in so doing, underscore the true magnitude of the devastation and exacerbate the sense of loneliness and alienation. Equally devastated and devastating is the comparatively monolithic Abbas al Al Mousawi Street, Yassine Building, the subject of which was once the artist’s home and studio.
|Farhat Art Museum Collection|
Baalbaki’s buildings are conspicuously devoid of human life which appears to have fled, taking up residence in the second half of his exhibition. But the humanity that emerges after the devastation has been altered by the war. The young men are either wholly or partially masked and women, children and old men are totally absent.
In Eye for an Eye, the viewer is confronted by 15 portraits of masked young men, (perhaps self portraits), whose faces are hidden behind a variety of masks, all associated with war: the traditional kaffiyeh, the war helmet, the gas mask and the ominous hood.
Baalbaki’s use of masks is a complex, multifaceted one. Unlike the classical masks of Rome and Greece, his masks obliterate facial features and thereby hide any visible indication of emotion. Instead, it is his choice of mask that conveys the emotions hidden behind it. One does not need to see the face under the hood to know it hides unimaginable terror.
In his constant working and reworking of this motif, Baalbaki’s masks have ceased to be mere devices for protection or the maintenance of anonymity. They have taken on a more fundamental function. He now uses his mask in the same was as primitive cultures used theirs, to mark a shift in a group’s equilibrium, particularly in terms of its relationship to death . In this case, his masks have only emerged in the aftermath of the death and devastation of war.
The kaffiyeh figures prominently in Baalbaki’s portraits. When he first started painting his kaffiyeh portraits, viewers misread the subject as Palestinians although he was painting faces that were also very much a part of the Lebanese Civil War. With the Intifada and the war in Iraq, his kaffiyeh-covered faces took on a broader Middle Eastern rather than a Lebanese or Palestinian identity. In Eye for an Eye, he presents the dichotomy of the kaffiyeh by positioning it alongside portraits of soldiers in gas masks and war helmets and war victims in hoods. Like Tarek Al-Ghoussein in his Self-Portrait Series , Baalbaki’s use of the kaffiyeh is a direct challenge to the contradictory interpretations that have become attached to what was once a humble headdress used to protect the wearer’s face from raging desert sands.
|Artwork By Ayman Baalbaki worked during the 2006 war on lebanon Farhat Art Museum Collection|
The portraits in this installation are mounted below a half open shutter, as if hung in a shop window. The words Eye for an Eye in Arabic script hang above the portraits, a clear demand for retribution. Part of an ongoing experiment with surfaces that have ‘a local uniqueness’ , Baalbaki paints the shutter a bright gold, like the backdrop of a Byzantine icon, bestowing a certain beatification upon the young men with the silently defiant eyes. Perhaps he has finally answered Reem El-Jindi’s question, ‘Victim or terrorist?’
In God, Baalbaki once again draws inspiration from Byzantine iconography for the installation’s gold background and its curved top that the he used because of its resemblance to the icon retable and the shape of a tombstone . His canvas, this time, is the top of a traditional vegetable cart. His lone figure looks up at the sky in resignation. Above him, the Big Dipper recalls a story from Arabic mythology of a funeral procession. The father, lying dead in the coffin (the pan of the Big Dipper), is followed by his sons represented by the three stars of the handle as they head in the direction of the North Star, their father’s killer, to seek vengeance.
While images of images of war dominate the exhibition, to say that Ayman Baalbaki’s theme is war would be a gross oversimplification. It is not the war that fascinates him, but rather its impact on the human psyche, and more specifically, his own. Despite his exploration of broad themes, Baalbaki’s work remains to a large degree introspective in nature. His work poses the question, ‘How has the war shaped who I am?’ with as much emphasis as makes a statement of the impact on Lebanon and its people.