Editor’s note: This is one of two articles we are posting today to mark the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic explosion that struck Beirut on August 4, 2020. The other is titled “One Year After the Beirut Blast, Technology Keeps Memories Fresh.”
Third-year students from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture at the Lebanese University have had a tough couple of years, like many students around the world. But they had added pressures with a collapsing economy, protests against government, the coronavirus pandemic, and, the final blow, the devastating explosion that rocked Beirut one year ago today. (See a related article, “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital.”)
Many students were unable to attend classes and had to spend their time at home, learning online (if electricity allowed for it).
The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky once said, “The more frightening the world becomes … the more art becomes abstract.” That cannot be truer for these art students, who took up their brushes and tools, and began creating scenes of destruction and hope from the Beirut port blast.
With the backing of the Lebanese University, their work will be displayed online on the university’s Facebook page in an event to highlight how they were able to express their emotions through their work.
Some paintings show the wreckage of the blast and the gruesome fact that people were mutilated and injured. Other works, like Daya Bou Karoum’s body sculpture made out of metal and cardboard, show “that destruction was not only physical but also psychological,” according to the student.
Another undergraduate, Layal Saloum, took inspiration from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and painted the fire after the explosion in the same brushstroke style as the Dutch artist, naming it “Scary Night.”
Healing in a Damaged City
“Based on the art education we offer to our students, which states that they express their inner feelings and stresses through art, I gave them the free choice to express their feelings through these works,” said Ali El Ali, a professor of fine arts who organized the event. “We thought it would be proper to display all these works online because it is hard during the pandemic and crisis to find a showroom.”
“Based on the art education we offer to our students, which states that they express their inner feelings and stresses through art, I gave them the free choice to express their feelings through these works.”Ali El Ali
A professor of fine arts who organized the event
The Lebanese University has four campuses across Lebanon and unfortunately, many of its buildings in Beirut were destroyed. As the institution is public, there was hardly any budget and so renovations were minimal. (See a related article, “Beirut Blast: A Map of the Damage to Educational and Cultural Institutions.”)
“The first anniversary is the remains of these buildings calling upon those responsible to look after it,” said Professor Mohamed Husni El-Hajj, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture. He said that the massive explosion awakened within the Lebanese people a new feeling and created “a kind of motivation to the young generation to look and search for what we can protect in Lebanon. Our students are a major part of the healing process of this country.”
As an incentive for these students, the university ran a competition for the most expressive artistic work based on the scenes of destruction. A panel of judges from the faculty chose their top pieces of art from each campus, and the winners are Sarah Taweel, Salim Harawi, Ghena Meri and Layla Al Bardan.
Works by Lebanese University art students
Taweel’s painting shows dead and injured people amongst the fire and destruction of the port explosion. It is a vivid and colorful painting that expresses the moments after the blast.
In contrast, Meri’s painting shows a bird’s-eye view of a destroyed Ottoman building, synonymous with Beirut’s old architecture. It is also colorful but gives a glimpse of the sad reality of how people returned to see their houses destroyed. (See a related article, “A Virtual Gallery Keeps Culture Alive in Crisis-Hit Lebanon.”)
Prizes consist of art equipment, to help these students continue with their work in the hope that Lebanon will retain them to continue displaying their art in the country.
Keeping Talent in Lebanon
El Hajj worries that some of these students will look abroad to pursue their careers. “Our country’s current circumstances are forming many difficulties for our students,” he said. “Many do not want to continue their education here and are searching for places abroad.”
“Our country’s current circumstances are forming many difficulties for our students. Many do not want to continue their education here and are searching for places abroad.”Mohamed Husni El-Hajj
Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture
He believes the university can help them stay in Lebanon by opening more online events to highlight their work. He adds that there are plans to open a Virtual Museum for them after this online event, and the hope is that Lebanon will regain its place in the world of art in the region.
As many educational establishments across Lebanon try to rebuild and retain students, it is clear the road ahead will be long and painful.
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As for the Lebanese University art students, El Ali is hopeful. “The future holds a lot for them,” he said, “and this artwork expresses a great inner turmoil within them because of the mass shock. This was evident in the art they created.”
He adds that Kandinsky would have described it as honesty of expression through art. If art can save these students during one of Lebanon’s worst crises, then there might be a glimmer of hope for the future of this tiny Mediterranean nation.