Lebanon’s Explosion of Political Graffiti Could Be a Subject for Study in Beirut Art Schools
BEIRUT—The massive anti-corruption protests that engulfed Lebanon in 2019 spawned an explosion of street art where a frustrated young generation expressed their grievances and demands on city walls. This graffiti has now been recognised in graphic and design schools, though it is not being offered as a separate subject.
At the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), which is part of the University of Balamand, first-year graphic design students study four fields: cartoons, illustration, cinema, and graphic arts and advertising.
Alain Brenas, director of the graphic design and advertising department at ALBA, said the four topics mean students can choose to study graffiti.
“Like any form of artistic expression, graffiti is a means of communication. Its advantage is that it is in the street and accessible directly to the public at large,” Brenas said. “You don’t have to go to a gallery to be exposed to graffiti. … It exposes itself.”
“Like any form of artistic expression, graffiti is a means of communication. Its advantage is that it is in the street and accessible directly to the public at large. You don’t have to go to a gallery to be exposed to graffiti. … It exposes itself.”Alain Brenas, director of the graphic design and advertising department at ALBA
He added: “At ALBA, we don’t teach street art as such, but we teach everything related to communication by means of illustration, and graffiti is a form of illustration in which typography, calligraphy and text can be used.”
Art schools in Lebanon focus on different forms of illustration, which can be expressed on paper, canvas, or a wall in a public space, Brenas said.
“The techniques of graffiti can be taught in a few hours, especially to those who are already trained in graphic expression and drawing. It is almost the same method using different tools, like spray cans or big brushes. But the concept is the same: First you work on the design, find the right message or idea, and draw.”
An Element of Danger
As it encroaches on public as well as private property, graffiti is considered a form of vandalism in many countries. It is mostly executed at night under the cover of darkness. Some countries tolerate it, but in others it is strictly forbidden because it can carry political messages that the authorities regard as harmful.
Street art has grown into a movement. Graffiti, paintings and murals became a powerful tool in the protests against corruption, inequality, high unemployment and rising poverty that erupted in Lebanon in October 2019, an uprising that quickly gained the label “thawra,” or “revolution.”
It is primarily the young generation who have used graffiti extensively in popular protests in Lebanon and other Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq and Sudan.
“Youth are attracted to graffiti maybe because there is some danger in it,” says Lina Ghaibeh, an associate professor of graphic design at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
“You are in a public space where you are not allowed, but you do it because you want to say something, and you want to participate,” she said. “This is why this art exploded during the ‘thawra’ in Lebanon. Young people had so much to say, and they were on the street.”
Many graffiti artists are AUB graduates of graphic design who were very active during the protests, and some have become famous. For Lebanese artists, the protests were not only times of upheaval, they also helped broaden the space for creative thinking. Protest art embodied the widespread desire for a different and better future,and helped spread the Lebanese people’s message worldwide.
‘A Thousand Times No’
Graffiti was also a big part of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Bahia Shehab, an artist and art historian whose famous “la, la wa alf la” (“A Thousand Times No”) grafitti became an icon of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, earned her undergraduate degree in graphic design from AUB.
Ghaibeh said graffiti used to be part of the illustration course that graphic design students at AUB were required to take. Street artists were invited to give lectures and workshops to students. The school is now planning to introduce grafitti as part of a course on the history of graphic design.
“Graphic design students learn how to employ different tools to express themselves. We encourage them to be citizens of their country,” Ghaibeh said.
“Graffiti doesn’t have to be political,” she added. “It can be social, cultural or environmental, such as the ‘Chain Effect’ campaign on walls across Beirut to encourage people to ride a bike instead of driving a car, or the murals depicting the famous singers Fairuz and Sabah, which are probably meant to revive Arabic culture.”
Art as a Witness of History
Art has always been a witness of history, capturing a nation’s culture, key moments and prominent figures, and graffiti is no exception.
“Youth are attracted to graffiti maybe because there is some danger in it. You are in a public space where you are not allowed, but you do it because you want to say something, and you want to participate. This is why this art exploded during the ‘thawra’ (revolution) in Lebanon.”Lina Ghaibeh, an associate professor of graphic design at the American University of Beirut
Paola Mounla, who works in advertising, has dedicated an Instagram page to the “Art of Thawra.” The page, which describes itself as “curating art during the Lebanese revolution,” documents the works of graffiti artists on walls and buildings across Beirut.
Ghaibeh says it is important to document street art “because graffiti does not endure. Sometimes it is erased, or somebody paints over it.”
She added: “I think it is always a fantastic thing to contribute to the city. Murals on buildings or in schools and hospitals for example help liven up the space. It is something beautiful to look at.”
Brenas also believes graffiti animates and enlivens public space. “Not all those who do graffiti have talent and their work might not be of quality, but others are professional and can do a much better job of embellishing the city.”
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