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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.
“I think artists have a responsibility, and I’m slowly realizing that we’re becoming really passive actors in a scenario we don’t have much to do with,” he said. “We’re just riding the wave, as there is demand for [war-themed art]. I think there’s another modernity, and other issues at work in this part of the world. This has been overused.”
Art from the Middle East focusing on conflict has been wildly successful with collectors and curators in recent years, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Lebanese curators and gallery managers say.
“They’re all excited lately about Iranian art, Arab art and Middle Eastern art,” said the manager of Beirut’s Espace Kettaneh-Kunigk gallery, Joy Mardini, who previously worked at Christie’s auction house. “I’m happy for us, for the Middle East. Finally someone is listening and looking at our work. But unfortunately the war scenes are selling very well abroad.”
This summer has seen numerous Lebanese galleries and art institutions host war-themed exhibitions. But many Lebanese artists reject Khoury’s claim that they are “prisoners.” “The works I do about photography, as a market, are much more successful than the works I do about war,” said Akram Zaatari, a Lebanese artist whose pieces are displayed in London’s Tate Modern gallery and Paris’ Pompidou Center, a modern art museum. “Collectors have told me they are fed up with war, and say they’d like to collect images of flowers and not violence.”
Zaatari is currently exhibiting in Beirut in conjunction with Khoury’s P.O.W. exhibit. His exhibition includes an iconic piece called “June 6, 1982.” The date refers to the day Zaatari took photos of an Israeli air raid from his balcony at the age of 16. He put the photos into a collage which has become an iconic work of art about the civil war. So, Khoury includes the collage in his P.O.W. piece.
“I gave him permission to use it in the piece, but it’s shallow, it’s a joke,” Zaatari said of the P.O.W. collage. “It’s a generalization, he picked up examples to illustrate an argument as opposed to exploring that argument well.”
This summer, Lebanon’s civil war was the focus of a month-long lecture series and exhibit called “The Road to Peace.” In a first, it featured works of art created during the war in one exhibition at the Beirut Art Center — a new, white-walled, non-profit gallery opened earlier this year and which is also hosting Bernard Khoury’s P.O.W. exhibit.