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War-themed art is as popular as ever in Lebanon, but many are tired of the fixation on their country's troubled history.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — To many Americans or Europeans, the words "Middle East" are synonymous with conflict and war.
So Bernard Khoury, a Lebanese man who is one of the Arab world’s most famous architects, says he’s had enough — at least with what he says are negative and simplistic views of the Middle East, and especially those perpetuated by the art world. He says American and European gallery owners, curators and collectors have fed Western perceptions that have pigeonholed Arab artists into creating “war art.”
“I believe [Lebanese and Arab artists] are only celebrated through aestheticizing war, and fetishizing war … what I call the neo-colonialist fantasy of what Lebanon is and what the Arab world is,” Khoury said at his sprawling studio in a warehouse near Beirut’s port.
Khoury’s criticism is expressed in a collage and sculpture called “P.O.W.,” or “Prisoner of War,” now on display at a Beirut gallery. The point, he says, is to create awareness and spark a discussion among Lebanese and Arab artists about the “war slot” to which they’ve become “prisoners.” “It’s scary to see that all contemporary artists today are being put into that slot, even those who have a lot more to say in their work,” he said.
Khoury says he’s come to this realization in the 11 years since he first gained international fame for his own war-themed projects, which have been called “combat architecture.”
In 1998, eight years after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, he created BO-18, an underground nightclub on the site of a 1976 massacre in Beirut. A year later, on the old frontline that once divided Beirut’s warring militias, he designed a sleek underground sushi restaurant which sat next to housing for war refugees. A few blocks away, Khoury gutted and wrapped an abandoned Lebanese house in steel mesh for a high-end restaurant called Centrale. The restaurant’s bar is suspended above the dining room in a steel, gun-like tube; windows slide open for a view onto downtown Beirut.
All the projects were Khoury’s reactions to war and urban space; among them, the way Lebanese society dealt with memories of the war and the way the war altered the fabric of the city. But now Khoury says the war theme has become commercialized and cliched.