Lebanon has endured a tumultuous 45 years. Transitioning from the site of the “Paris of the Middle East” to a 15 year civil war, and the presence of Syrian troops for 29 years brought traumatic changes to the Mediterranean nation. Recent estimates for the ratio of current refugees within Lebanon place one refugee for every four nationals. The vast majority of these have been fleeing the violence and lethal repression of the current Assad regime in Syria. This would be the equivalent to the United States hosting 60 million refugees. In spite of all this, the country’s long ties to France allowed a cross-pollination of artistic influences and that tradition continues today despite an almost unimaginable living memory of war and instability.
Saad Ghosn was born in Lebanon but has resided in the United States for many years. An artist and printmaker himself, he has curated “Printed Voices from Lebanon: Social and Cultural Reflections”, a collection of 97 prints from 13 Lebanese, three Syrian, two Palestinian, and one Iranian artists at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center.
Fatima Mortada is a multi-disciplianrian who has a linocut series focusing on death and rebirth through ancient Middle-Eastern mythological archetypes, as in “We Too Might Walk in Newness of Life”. “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” presents the skeletal falcon, representing Horus (justice) grasping a partial skeleton of the cow as goddess Ishtar. The symbolism of justice reigning over and dominating motherhood and mothers could be an allegory for the lost children of the conflicts in and around Beirut. Horus is literally crowing over the prone figure of Ishtar. The title is an obvious allusion to death and the death within the conflicts which Mortada can hardly avoid influencing her work.
Charles Khoury’s “Untitled #5” is a tableau of animal and human figures. A man and child are surrounded by fish, birds, and land mammals. Each resides within a network of lines that connect each one to several others. Without further clues regarding the symbolism, either the inter-connection of life or the repudiation of man’s dominion are both rich interpretations. Amongst works within “Voices from Lebanon”, it is distinctly in the minority by not having overt references to the region, at least not prima facie references. An elephant places this scene far from Lebanon.
Bringing the focus directly and without allegory to the reality of the refugee experience, “In the Shelter” focuses on technique rather than a symbolic lexicon to emphasize the plight that Mansour El Habre wishes to highlight among the internal dislocations due to the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. The distorted faces show smiles and grimaces packed together in black and white. The darkness of the shelter pervades every subject. There are no untouched areas of negative space within “In the Shelter”. Each area, each wall, is lined and textured in slightly different ways to show the crowding and the lack of ‘space’ the figures have themselves. The faces are plaintive, questioning, sad, and happy. Some are clearly caught in motion while others are still. El Habre has crowded the faces one upon the other, and all figures within one dimension to increase the sense of uncomfortable proximity.
Ghosn has brought these 97 prints together in a show that is cohesive but expansive. While sharing similar formats and themes, these 19 artists span a wide range of experience and expression which is hardly digestible within a cursory visit. Time is required to comprehend and synthesize a reaction to the works. That being said, Ghosn has combined the disparate tones and techniques of these 19 into a united whole that cannot fail to move and impress.
“Printed Voices from Lebanon:Social and Cultural Reflections”
September 21- November 9, 2019
Kennedy Heights Arts Center
6546 Montgomery Road