BEIRUT—In a concerted effort to breathe life into Lebanon’s crisis-hit cultural scene, the French Institute in Lebanon, the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute have held separate events across the country particularly aimed at young Lebanese artists during the past month.
The French Institute organised a ten-day international francophone book festival in October,the Goethe Institute followed with an ArtEvolution platform, and the British Council is holding an “In Between” festival that concludes this week.
All of these events were trying to reinvigorate the arts in Lebanon, which have been badly hit by the crises of the past three years.
“By holding the book festival, we wanted to make a bet which I believe we have largely won,” the French Institute’s director, Sabine Sciortino, told al-Fanar Media. “This festival is aimed at repositioning Beirut as a major cultural and intellectual capital which has always been a crossroad between the Occident and the Orient and between the Mediterranean and Arab worlds.”
The festival included exhibitions, book readings and literary debates with authors, concerts and cartoon animation in 40 locations in Beirut and across Lebanon. All events were open to the public free.
“We should care about those artists who remained in Lebanon. Culture is absolutely essential, even more essential during times of crisis, because culture is an element of social cohesion. … It is not an accessory.”Sabine Sciortino, director of the French Institute of Beirut
“We had to decentralise the event to make it accessible to all and reach the largest possible public, especially young people,” Sciortino said. Because of the high cost of transport, “we decided to go to the people instead of them coming to us.”
More than 100 Lebanese and international authors presented their latest works, and the finalists of France’s prestigious literary Goncourt Prize were announced during the ten-day festival, which ran from October 19 to 30. Many events were translated into Arabic to make them more accessible to non-French speakers.
A former French protectorate, Lebanon has had a francophone culture for centuries. For 25 years, the annual Francophone Book Fair of Beirut regularly drew up to 80,000 people to the capital. The last edition, set for 2019, was cancelled because of nationwide protests against corruption, economic collapse and malfunctioning governments.
The following year, the cultural sector in Lebanon suffered two new shocks, the lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating August 4, 2020, explosion in the Port of Beirut, which damaged large neighbourhoods that were home to many art galleries and which had a thriving cultural life. The neighbourhoods have been largely rebuilt, but many artists and young talent have left.
“We should care about those artists who remained in Lebanon,” Sciortino said. “Culture is absolutely essential, even more essential during times of crisis, because culture is an element of social cohesion. … It is not an accessory.”
The festival provided a platform for new authors like Randa Imad to expose their work and interact with the public. She signed copies of her first poetry book, “Les Effluves d’une Vie” (“Scents of a Life”), inspired by memories of her life at home and abroad.
“Participating in the book fair was a source of pride for me. It was a unique opportunity to get public exposure,” Imad said. “Hosting international authors and using the festival as a platform to announce the finalists of the Goncourt Prize is a testimony that despite all the crises, Lebanon did not stop being a country where culture has a privileged place.”
Imad lamented the fact that with the currency collapse, Lebanese families no longer have the means to buy books. “They have other priorities.”
Nonetheless, she said, “the festival was essential because it reaffirmed Lebanon’s cultural position.”
The British Council in Lebanon’s ”In Between” festival is the result of a series of capacity building programmes for young people in the visual arts, music, dance and performance, and the gaming industry.
“We focused mainly on the younger scene because this is where opportunities lacked, and we wanted to support them in finding the right tools,” said Marc Mouarkech, head of the arts section at the British Council in Lebanon.
“The artistic scene in Lebanon has always been alive. The name of the [In Between] festival comes from the fact that in between traumatic events, the artists never stopped working. … It is great to see it dynamic again and actively creating links with the public.”Marc Mouarkech, head of the arts section at the British Council in Lebanon
The five-day festival, which continues through November 20, seeks to help young Lebanese artists by giving visibility to their work and providing opportunities for them to make international contacts. Over 100 artists are taking part in the festival.
“Young artists will have the chance to meet and exchange with professionals from different fields in Lebanon and the United Kingdom,” Mouarkech said. “It allows the discovery of new talent and helps break the barrier between the young scene and cultural institutions.”
Mouarkesh underlined the resilience of the artistic scene in a country gripped by unrelenting crises.
“The artistic scene in Lebanon has always been alive,” he said. “The name of the festival comes from the fact that in between traumatic events, the artists never stopped working. After some sort of hibernation, it is great to see it dynamic again and actively creating links with the public.”
The Goethe Institute in Lebanon’s ArtEvolution 2022 programme recently concluded with a two-day platform during which participants presented works-in-progress in various formats.
ArtEvolution is a five-month programme that starts with a short, intensive workshop, followed by a “reflection” period during which participants receive funding to advance their projects.
This year’s participants worked on projects that were loosely connected by themes of storytelling and memory, but involved a variety of techniques, including theatre, dance, spoken poetry, electronic sound scaping, and cooking.
The programme also presented a series of Impulse conversations between project participants, the public, and established practitioners on the subject of the human body in acting, under Lebanon’s current conditions and in earlier times.
“ArtEvolution was designed to provide a young generation of artists and cultural practitioners in and around the field of performing arts with an adequate pedagogical and critical infrastructure to pursue their artistic practices,” the Goethe Institute said.
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