Celebrating Arab Artists as ‘Spiritual Historians’
BEIRUT—The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture is showcasing its first ten years of activity in Beirut this month. An exhibition titled “How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won: A Selection from the Annals of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture,” curated by Rasha Salti, highlights the way art can preserve unwritten and unofficial histories, engage with the present in nuanced and creative ways, and imagine alternative futures.
The fund, known as AFAC, is an independent grant-making organization that has sponsored over 1,130 artistic projects over the years. It supports film, photography, music, performing arts, literature, research and training.
“Empowering independent cultural production is crucial for creating vibrant Arab societies,” writes Ghassan Salamé, AFAC’s chairman, in his introduction to the exhibition. “The potential to spur critical thinking and expression is monumental.”
In addition to supporting the work of artists across the region, AFAC’s activities aim to strengthen distribution and outreach; offer mentoring and support to cultural institutions; encourage research about art and culture; and create programs for under-developed art forms such as critical and creative writing.
The exhibition “How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won” takes its title from a 1965 essay by Eqbal Ahmad, published in The Nation magazine, that criticized U.S. policies in the Vietnam War. Its use by Salti contains the suggestion—or just the hope—that at the very moment one is defeated and violently overpowered, one is on the brink of inevitable change.
The exhibition is being hosted by Beit Beirut, a museum and cultural center that recently opened in a war-scarred but elegant relic of the city’s past. The building, which wraps around a city corner and features an open arcade in its center, was constructed in 1924 and is known as the Barakat Building, after the family that first owned it. Abandoned at the start of Lebanon’s civil war, in 1975, it stood on the Green Line—the demarcation between warring factions—and was taken over by militias and snipers.
In the 1990s, after the fighting stopped, the architect and activist Mona El Hallak rediscovered the heavily damaged building and dreamed of restoring it as a “museum of memory.” She persuaded city authorities to acquire it instead of allowing the owners to destroy it.
Reopened this year as Beit Beirut (the House of Beirut), the building has been beautifully renovated in a manner that foregrounds its history. While a modern structure has been added inside—including an underground auditorium, a spiral ramp, and a rooftop observation deck—the pockmarked façade and many rooms have been maintained in their damaged state.
A number of the artworks in AFAC’s exhibition also “resurrect and preserve a memory at risk of complete erasure,” as Salti put it. In her introduction to the exhibition, she quotes James Baldwin’s description of the artist as an “emotional and spiritual historian.”
The Photo Mario Archive Project, for example, displays prints from the thousands of damaged photographic negatives that El Hallak found in an abandoned photography studio on the ground floor of the Barakat Building. El Hallak hopes that some of the people whose portraits have been recovered and reprinted will be identified. On the day I visited the exhibition, I was told this was already happening—a middle-aged woman had recognized a childhood portrait of herself the day before.
Another project showcased in the exhibition focuses on a forgotten play. Al-Marseillaise Al-’Arabi (The Arabic Marseillaise) was staged in Beirut for a month and a half before the eruption of the war, and only a manuscript survives. The artist Mazen Kerbaj shares research he is conducting on the play and its history, on which he plans to write a graphic novel.
Views From the Margins
Artists don’t just preserve and revive history that is erased from textbooks or lost in conflicts. They also capture voices and points of view that may be given little space in mainstream discourse.
“How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won” is largely built around work produced by the Arab Documentary Photography Program, a three-year-old project jointly funded by AFAC and the Prince Claus Foundation, in the Netherlands, in cooperation with the Magnum Foundation, in New York. This program was based on the observation that while stereotypical and violent images of the region proliferate, there is virtually no support for narrative and analytical original documentary photography.
The 37 young photographers supported by the program have focused on a wide variety of subjects, including the grieving and bewildered families of Iraqi cadets massacred by the Islamic State; a Yemeni woman who lives on a protected lagoon on Socotra Island, in the Arabian Sea, and is resisting expropriation of her property; prejudice between clans in Somalia; and beauty standards in Sudan.
The works produced by these young photographers offer “representations that counter those prevailing in the media and markets and disseminated by autocracies,” writes Salti in her introduction to the exhibition.
In “A Small Forest on the Other Side,” Eyad Abou Kasem shares the photo diary of his stay in a refugee camp in Germany after emigrating from Syria. In “Friday Gathering,” Faisal Al Fouzan documents the living conditions of migrant workers in Kuwait.
Another project, “Shame (less),” explores the lives of artists in Saudi Arabia; “Revolution of the Mind,” by Mostafa Bassim, portrays young Egyptians who, like him, faced extreme social pressure and harassment when embracing views or lifestyles that challenge community norms.
Some of the most powerful photographs focus on the lives of economically marginalized communities. “Shreds of Life,” by Mehdy Mariouch, depicts workers who, out of necessity, continue to illegally work in abandoned coal mines in Jerada, Morocco. “West of Life,” by Zied Ben Romdhane, is a series of stunning black and white photographs of the landscape of Gafsa, in Tunisia—a region in which phosphates are mined but which remains impoverished and volatile (it was one of the areas whose strikes led to the Tunisian uprising).
In a curator’s talk that accompanied the exhibition, Salti argued that “political imaginaries are so bankrupt” in the region today that the arts offer a more fertile ground for creative political thinking. She mentioned art projects that have taken on the selling off of the Beirut seaside to private developers or that imagined a future in which Israeli settlements are dismantled. In the arts, she said, “there is subversion, there is saying the unsayable, there is making the invisible visible.”
“How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won” will run through November 25. You can view the full program here.