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French Version

Breathing still : Beirut artists exhibit war work

Espace SD and Xanadu provide platform for 'bearing witness'

Past slips into present. A completed action creeps back into a sentence transformed, mutated, made continuous.

The inconsistent use of verb tenses would seem to suggest a poor command of the English language - but Sandra Dagher and Zena al-Khalil are both comfortably fluent, so surely something else is going on here.

Dagher, a contemporary art dealer and director of the Gemmayzeh gallery Espace SD, and Khalil, an artist and curator who heads up the Xanadu arts initiative, are discussing the process by which their current, collaborative exhibition "Nafas Beirut" came into being. Their conversation is throwing out all sorts of linguistic distortion. That something else, it seems, is a refusal to fix the war in Lebanon this summer, a refusal to give it a finite beginning or end, or to let language dictate whether or not the war - this one or the last one, hot or cold - is over and done with.

A sprawling exhibition of paintings, drawings, photographs, installations, design pieces, video works, collages and texts, "Nafas Beirut" is accompanied by a month-long series of events including tightly curated video screenings, concerts, poetry readings, an open-mic night and a lecture bringing environmental activism into the fabled "art space." Keenly tagged "a platform for artists bearing witness," it features the work of 45 different artists, poets, writers and filmmakers.

Espace SD is a venue blessed with abundant floor, wall and screen space. As a site of artistic expression, it is concrete rather than virtual, it can pull in a crowd and it is here in Beirut - all obvious characteristics, yes, but important ones for Dagher and Khalil to reiterate now.

In early August, Dagher was wrestling with an idea. The violence that erupted in Lebanon on July 12 was threatening to bury Beirut's art scene but at the same time had provoked an explosion of creativity, known through widely circulating emails, clearing-house Web sites and artists' postings on their own or others' blogs.

So radical was the chasm between Beirut and the rest of the world that Dagher had convinced herself an exhibition to bring all this work to the world was necessary. But it was an intense time and what seemed clear to her one minute clouded the next.

"One day Sandra called and said: 'I have this idea,'" recalls Khalil. "It was still during the war. The last time we had seen each other was also during the war and Sandra got this phone call saying, 'They're about to hit Beirut.' This was that day when [the Israelis] were threatening to hit Beirut. So I thought that would be the last time I ever see Sandra. Then a week later, she called and said: 'I have this idea.'" Khalil catches Dagher's eye and laughs wearily. "Apparently we were still alive."

"It actually started with another idea," admits Dagher. "I thought of having an exhibition outside of Lebanon." She started making contacts in Paris and calling the artists she knows in Beirut. "By talking and talking and talking, we started realizing there are things that are happening now and there's an exhibition that should happen now. There was a lot of work being done in reaction and a lot of artists expressing themselves via blogs and via the Internet.

"But we thought it would be important to give to these people a physical platform," explains Dagher. "That was the first reason. The second was that we wanted to do something to dynamize the scene, because during this time there was nothing."

"It was also very depressing knowing that there are so many artists that are here but there was no venue, no way to see them or interact with them," adds Khalil. "So we thought this would also be a way to bring people together and to reconfirm that art is not going to die and the cultural scene is not going to die because of the war. We thought, if we bring everyone together then immediately we can stop that from happening. It wasn't just about historicizing the war," she says. "It was also about keeping the art scene alive."

On August 29, Dagher and Khalil put out an open call for artists to submit their work. By September 25, they were ready to make a selection. On October 12, "Nafas Beirut" opened to the public. The word nafas translates from Arabic as "breath."

"The title came from a friend," Dagher explains. "We were really looking for a way to express that we want to live again and breathe again, that we are still here. I don't know if you can talk about the death of the cultural scene in one month. Maybe it was a pause but we had to start quickly again. We needed to be revived."

For an exhibition thrown together so fast and under such circumstances, "Nafas Beirut" holds together well.

No heavy curatorial hand guides the selection, but then again, there's no need. The show's themes are given.

That is not to say there are no surprises - from Ziad Abillama's untitled sculpture of a signpost with five arrows pointing "Arabes" in all directions to Lina Hakim's striking installation "6 Banadoura," composed on rice bags stenciled with portraits of young men and women from displaced families who, despite their hardship, volunteered at relief centers during the war. That these two works frame the entrance to "Nafas Beirut" suggests curatorial practice is, for all the openness of this show, in full effect.

Notably absent, however, is political vitriol.

"We were talking about this," says Khail, "and maybe it's still too soon. People still don't know what to think or how to analyze. I think people are still processing what happened...

"This war," she says, "I was so surprised how quickly it ended. And people just assume that's it. But it's not, and it's dangerous for people not to understand that this doesn't end overnight."

"This show," adds Dagher, "it's a way of saying, 'Hey, this happened.' After all, I think everyone knows that this was our biggest mistake with the last war."

"Nafas Beirut" is on view at Espace SD through November 17. For more information, please call +961 1 563 114 or check out www.espacesd.com and www.xanaduart.com

Beyrouth 20-10-2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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