Abdul Rahman Katanani has had an unconventional journey to becoming a recognized artist. A Palestinian refugee born in Beirut’s Sabra camp in 1983, in the year following the infamous massacre there, today he is pushing the boundaries of Arab art with the sculpture he makes out of the recycled materials he learned to use in lieu of paint and pencils as a boy.
For Katanani and many other artists, Beirut is a refuge, in part due to the freedom of artistic expression allowed in Lebanon. In recent years, many Syrian and Iraqi artists have sought to work and engage there with local artists, who are receptive to interacting with foreign artists.
When not in his studio, Katanani can often be found with an artist friend in Agial Gallery’s basement office or else sitting with gallery owner Saleh Barakat discussing current events in Middle Eastern politics and art. The gallery’s office is overflowing with books on Middle Eastern art, Barakat’s papers and many small-scale sculptures by the gallery’s various artists. I met Katanani with artist Serwan Baran and we sat at a round table as cigarettes were shared between the two.
“I never understood how Beirut could be so inspiring until I left to Paris for six months for an artist residency program,” says Katani. “The inspiration for me comes from two sources: The surrounding environment, and the environment of the camps. Beirut allows you to work without any restrictions, be it religious or political despite them being there. You can still be distanced away from them.”
That sentiment is echoed by Baran, an Iraqi artist who lived in Amman for ten years before settling in Beirut. Says Baran: “Beirut is a fertile environment where a lot of serious artists are looking out for one another and engaged together, and our work collectively is a reaction to the politics of war.”
Having earned a diploma of fine arts from the Lebanese University’s Fine Arts College in 2007, and having been awarded the Young Artists’ Prize at the Salon d’Automne in 2009, Katanani has since participated in other art residency programs as well as group exhibitions and solo exhibitions both in the Middle East and Europe.
For Katanani, becoming an artist and identifying as one happened incrementally. “The interesting thing is I got to know Beirut only recently despite being born here and growing up here my entire life. In the camp, you have the feeling of fear of leaving the camp and going outside because Sabra and Shatila were always surrounded by phalangists [right-wing militants]. Our parents were always scared of us leaving the camps.” Katanani wasn’t exposed to the museums and galleries that populate Beirut’s downtown until between 2008 and 2009 when he was in his mid-twenties. He says his art education in the camp was rudimentary, at best.
“NGO workers who came to work and help us in the camps planted the idea in our heads that without external assistance and funds we can’t do anything,” he says. “But I always thought I could do something without their help.” Previously what art was made in the camps was depictions of political struggles, such as posters. Katanani started drawing caricatures and graffiti. His big step forward as a contemporary artist was discovering a way to record the Palestinian struggle using scrap material– “Anything that I could find in the camps.” He started to collect discarded objects and materials. “Garbage once had a life with a person,” he says. “It fulfilled a purpose for a duration of time for someone and contains stories within the object. So I decided to collect these ‘stories’ and slowly, slowly it came to be that with these objects [I could] build works in a simple and pleasant way.”
The constructions vary in their subjects: Two-dimensional sculptures such as renderings of a family seeking refuge by cutting out the shapes of figures from corrugated iron and adding a pot or Raggedy-Anne doll to the composition; or else of young boys flying kites (a pastime often pursued in Palestinian camps). Through these works Katanani is reflecting on the realities of refugee-camp life. The use of multiple types of material harkens back to the beginning of mixed-media sculpture in Western art, but Katanani’s creations are not derivative.
One of Katanani’s most famous sculptures is the barbed-wire sculpture Tornado now in the collection of the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation. The sculpture symbolizes the internal psychological struggle of the Palestinian people and the limitations of movement and even thought that they face. Katanani made it from the barbed wire like that surrounding the camps. “We have to reassess notions of independence so we can actually seek freedom collectively,” he says.
The work’s merit also stems from its universal message: “[Katanani’s] use of barbed wire speaks not only about Palestinians but about other people and the loss of freedom in other parts of the world. He has made use of it for himself, but it has meaning for others,” says Baran.
Says Katanani: “I learned when I went to the Fine Arts College that artists created their own colors so that they can find the colors that they need to be unique. In the camps, colors are not really present—we don’t have oil or acrylic paints so we use what materials we have, such as household paint.”
He knows some critics didn’t view his early work as art because it was made using household paint applied onto corrugated iron. “But” he says, “I’ve been able to use the materials that I found in the camps to produce the work I’ve wanted to make. I recycle the materials I find around me, and this has opened up a lot of possibilities for creating things, and being able to display things in different ways.”
The works aren’t as haphazardly conceived or produced as their rough appearance might suggest. What might appear to look organically or spontaneously conceived adheres to an organized structure. “When outsiders come visit our camps, they accuse us of having built things haphazardly, but what looks haphazard to you is very organized to us. It is individual organization versus collective organization, which is why my work looks like it’s been made spontaneously.”
“Art has certainly helped me get out of the camps and come to Beirut, and from Beirut to other things,” he says. “Does art help to liberate a group of people?”
He answers his own question: “I think my work can help spread ideas or inspire others to bring about some kind of change.”
Heba Elkayal has a master’s degree in modern art history and curation from Columbia University, has served as a consultant and staff member for numerous art collectors, galleries, and an auction house, and was the lifestyle editor for Daily News Egypt from 2008 to 2012.