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French Version

Do It ! Arabic Statement Design for Today People

Fashion meets Middle Eastern geopolitical reality in the work of new innovative talents

"Why are we here in Beirut, anyway?" asks Alex Medawar with a surge of rhetoric. For a moment, his face freezes and his eyes bulge ever so slightly, as if he's waiting for a response from an audience somewhere off in the distance. "Because something is happening here," he says finally, his face reanimating as he answers his own question.

That something is not the evolution of a Wallpaper aesthetic in furniture design. And to use Beirut as a home base to create objects of streamlined minimalism is somewhat nonsensical, suggests Medawar, similar to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand and ignoring the world around it.

"In the environment we're living in, the culture is poor but the urban and political environment is intense and stimulating," he says.

To provoke a design aesthetic that more closely matches (and more fully considers) the geopolitical realities and historical contexts of life in Beirut, Medawar has enlisted a small but impressive group of young talents to create objects related to three themes: resist, veil and unveil, and drink/water. For the past six months, he's been on their case to produce. And from now through February 5, he is exhibiting 13 of the completed prototypes in the Laboratory at Espace SD in Gemmayzeh.

"Do It! Arabic Statement Design for Today People" is a coproduction by Medawar and the Association de Design et d'Architecture au Proche-Orient (ADAPO). The show was originally assembled for the 4th International Design Biennial in Saint-Etienne, which ran from November 6 through 14 last year. Because Saint-Etienne has a reputation for being one of the younger and more experimental of such international design events, it provided a fertile testing ground for Medawar's thesis - that contemporary design from Lebanon can tackle controversial issues and provocative ideas.

"Saint-Etienne is experimental in comparison to Paris or Milan," he says. "It's a place where you can go to smell tendencies and see if there's good energy." Of course, there are still "loads of tables and loads of chairs and loads of s--- and it's all colorful," he adds. "There's huge competition but everyone's doing basically the same thing. I wanted to switch from the usual furniture or chair, the artsy-fartsy ideas that are completely invading even the Beirut street and apartment."

Medawar, 37, is a geographer, graphic designer, project manager, curator, and all around character who divides his time between Beirut and Lausanne. He went to the last Saint-Etienne design biennial two years as a journalist. So for this edition, he had a full-on media strategy worked out.

"Lebanese designers have to be on the stage, in the media," he says. "As Arab or Middle Eastern designers, okay, we have no money, we have no time, things are f----- up everyday."

In Medawar's view, there's no point in producing just another nice chair or another nice table. Admittedly interested in politics from the start, he believes there are benefits to be gained from producing objects that "create some awareness around design, not just something you put in your living room."

For the show, Karim Chaya (one half of the industrial design team known as ACID) created two pieces along the resistance theme that each incorporate sportsmanship and recycled materials. "Untitled (Intifada No. 2)," made from a recycled car fender and intended "to optimize the efficacy of a thrown stone." The large weather-beaten piece of chrome also works like the bat in the games of pelota or jai lai, capable of catching and reflinging a tough object such as a tear gas grenade. For "Untitled (Intifada No. 3)," Chaya took a retro tennis racket, covered it in matte black tape, and restrung it with steel cables, imagining young militants with a more precise and powerful strategy of serve-and-volley.

Also drawing on the resistance idea, painter and jewelry designer Ranya Sarakbi fashioned a sling shot in leather with a metal clasp. The piece addresses the role of women in resistance movements, and, as Sarakbi suggests, could prove to be a useful accessory all the time, for women anywhere who are in need of fending off unwanted male aggression.

While the intifada pieces rely on sport and fashion for added meaning, others play on overtly controversial imagery. Ahmad al-Ahmad, the pseudonym for a Beirut-based architect and designer, produced a "suicide attack" T-shirt called "Allah Wa Akbar," with sticks of dynamite and a timer screen-printed on basic white cotton. Ali Hussein Badr, the alter ego and pseudonym for one of the show's creators, produced a bedside-table lamp in the shape of the black-hooded Iraqi prisoner central to the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal.

More nuanced are the interpretations of "veil and unveil." Furniture designer Nada Debs created a beautiful frosted glass hand-mirror in the patterns of a moucharabieh, while Christie Bassil and Nathalie Khoury used the same visual motif to create a head-cage (basically a piece of fencing to place over one's head like a box) and an evening bag respectively.

Fashion designer Ghassan Salam contributed a long black-tressed wig, for the purpose of side-stepping bans on Islamic headscarves, while Badr created a series of small plastic containers to be worn like a necklace, so when the wearer enters the public sphere, they can slip the charm of a necklace with religious connotations (a Christian cross or a star of David, for example) into the plastic box, which is printed with the phrase "Vive la Republique."

Less obvious are the designs related to drinking and water. Fashion designer Milia M has created one of the more poignant pieces in the show, two coated pieces of cloth representing Israel and Palestine joined together by a waterproof zipper. As displayed in Espace SD, the piece holds a cupful of water and a rose, emblematic of the need for resolutions to the regions political conflicts and contested (and scarce) water supplies.

"There is a lot of irony here," explains Medawar, "and in my opinion, irony is not a strength of Arabic culture. There's a certain sense of humor but it stopped at Abu Abed [the stock Beiruti comic character]."

The exhibition at Saint-Etienne provoked unease among audiences, but as Medawar reports, "Anyone fortysomething or even thirtysomething with a situationist postpunk background was like yes, we want one of these," in relation to the "suicide attack" T-shirt. Other works, like the wig and the "Vive la Republique" boxes played out better in France, where the veil issue is more politically vexing, whereas it's more of an everyday non-issue in Lebanon. Similarly, the moucharabieh motif generated a more meaningful response in Beirut, and the distinction between the first intifada and the second was sharper and more clearly understood here than in Europe.

That said, Medawar stresses that many of these pieces are essentially ready made. Some could (and have been) produced in a matter of hours. "It's cheap," he says, "but the ideas are on."

And they could go further. Medawar says he was struck by the fact that so many designers tackled the resistance theme by taking the side of the Palestinians. "But nobody has the guts to take on the dictatorship of Syria," for example.

In many ways, Medawar's strategy works against attempts to sell Beirut as a prepackaged lifestyle destination stripped of all distinction and made strangely, generically benign.

"As soon as you spend some time discussing things with creative people ideas start popping," he says, "some of them quite critical." Medawar is planning to publish the exhibition in book form and hopes to launch it at a suitable space such as the Palais de Tokyo or Fondation Cartier in Paris. He plans to do more work on the water theme and still expects a few outstanding pieces, intended for the Espace SD show, to be completed.

"The real strategy," he says, "is to create something here that's meaningful for the rest of the world."

"Do It! Arabic Statement Design for Today People" is in the Laboratory at Espace SD until Feb. 5. For info call +961 1 563114

Beirut 31-01-2005
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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