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French Version

Twenty-one ways of looking at the face of Zeina Barakeh

Painter's first solo exhibition in Beirut offers variations on self-portraiture

"It's very selfish, this relationship between me and my work," says Zeina Barakeh, tilting her head and laughing at her own self-assessment. "It's all about me, for me, with me."
Barakeh is poised on a black leather chair placed mid-way down the long exhibition hall at Espace SD.

It's a vantage point from which she can survey all 21 of the paintings on view in her first solo show, entitled "Facettes." The canvases are large and expressive; the compositions figurative yet squiggled with spare, dancing, delicate lines. Every image carries a female figure. Some are depicted as full-bodied and nude (like Egon Schieles without the cold anguish of flesh; like Ghada Amer's stitched auto-eroticism with sexual self-confidence instead of a willful appropriation of pornography). Others are more tightly focused on the face, like character studies for a woman at the center of a novel or a film. She may be sultry or sexy or sad. She may be given any number of names. But she is always, in some way, an encapsulation of femininity. And she is always, again in some way, an aspect of the artist herself.

Born in Beirut in 1972, Barakeh has been painting seriously since 1994, the year she graduated from the Lebanese American University (LAU) with a degree in architecture and interior design and the Sheikh Zayed Prize for studio art. She works intuitively and spontaneously, constantly rotating an arsenal of styles and aesthetic experiments. About four years ago, however, she realized one thing was constant. No matter how much she shifted her approach, a face always emerged on the canvas in front of her. That face was always female, with huge eyes, a delicate mouth, a tangle of hair, and a stinging emotional resonance. That face, she came to understand, was always, inexorably, her own.

"I've reached a level," she explains, "a phase in my work, where I know now that all the women I draw are me. At the beginning, I didn't know that. I would just draw and draw. And there were always women. And I would worry, you know, 'What is this? Why all these women? Why can't I draw men or children or something like that, landscapes?' Now I am more at ease. I have less trouble accepting that I can make very ugly, disturbed, or tormented women, and its okay. That could be me."

As a student at LAU, Barakeh learned to take her work seriously, she recalls, "how to criticize your own work, how to be your toughest critic, how not to settle and to always want to have more, and do more."

But she admits that she graduated with gaps in her knowledge, whether they were technical, historical, or theoretical. So in 2001, she did a summer residency program for artists in Vermont. She did the same in 2004. These residencies convinced her to push harder.

"For once I felt that I had something and I was a painter," she says. "Living here, it was very difficult between my job and the society around me. Art is not taken seriously. It's like I'm decorating the house. It's not like an expression. It's not like writing a book."

Because these residencies afforded her an opportunity to workshop her paintings with a tight panel of peers, such concentrated bursts of activity also sharpened Barakeh's analytical edge. Her ability to read her own work is both patient and penetrating. Her findings are neither insular nor indulgent. Rather, they are a way of testing her surfaces, tapping for a sweet spot, a new opening to explore. The point is both artistic progress and personal evolution.

Barakeh has been teaching art to high school students at the American Community School in Beirut since 1994 and that, too, contributes to her growth.

"Teaching helps a lot," she says. "I'm a big fan of teaching. It's not that I can't live off my paintings so I teach, no. It's the connection with the students that makes me grow as a person. I'm not afraid when I work, I don't hold back. I've met painters who do not dare to try something new because it's unfamiliar, they don't know what they'll get, and they don't want to fail. I don't have that problem because I'm beginning and I'm not scared. As a teacher I'm always saying that to the students, so I have to go home and do the same thing."

Of course, that gets complicated when her work is self-portraiture and includes a few overtly sensual nudes. "I worried a lot about that," she admits. "I mean, I'm telling people, these are me, and so showing them like that," she gestures shyly to a figure with upturned breasts, "and having my students come to the gallery, looking at them, and thinking, 'Is that my art teacher?'" Here she bursts out laughing and her cheeks turn red. "This isn't, um, I mean, I get embarrassed by that."

Still, Barakeh had something to say about the body and decided to say it. "I feel that in this society - okay, there are norms. You cannot neglect or ignore or offend them. But sometimes I get angry, I feel as a woman I am looked upon as a lower being. Not at school, not in my profession, not with my students, not with my friends, but in daily life. So this was an outburst," she says, gesturing more confidently to the nude. "This is what I want, this is what I'm doing, I can't have it anywhere else so I'm going to have it in my paintings."

"If I don't mature as a painter," she says, "if I don't mature as a person, my work will not go farther, it will remain at the same level. It's very much linked to me as an individual, my experiences. I'm beginning to realize that all this work, these drawings, it's very much my unconscious. I am aware of that and I'm happy in a way, because for all my issues and emotional problems or whatever, this is an outlet. I'm receptive to that. It's a direct outlet. So instead of talking, I'm just letting everything out on canvas. And then I'm asking myself, 'Why am I sad in this one? Why am I sitting like this? What's wrong with me?' So I'm asking myself questions and it makes me think about things."

Aside from the autobiographical angle, Barakeh's work is intriguing for its technique. She doesn't use primed canvases, for example, and she doesn't use paintbrushes. Rather, she buys spools of a kind of canvas typically used for curtains (the nearby vendor who sells her the material naturally thinks she is a bit strange). Then she attacks the rough-hewn surface with a squeegee bottle in one hand and a paint roller in the other. She makes her lines, then smudges over small sections. The result is something like improvisation made visual.

She also works on numerous paintings at once, stopping on occasion to photograph the progress on one or another. "I'm always jumping back and forth," she says. "The contrast helps. I used to do 10 paintings in one. Every time my mood changed, my painting would change until there would be nothing left of it. So I learned to do different things. If I'm having a problem with one painting, I go do another until I figure out how to solve it."

Though Barakeh has been working on this exhibition for three years, she produced all of the work on view since August. A watershed moment of sorts occurred with her decision to pare down her colors. Some of the strongest works at Espace SD are monochrome, made exclusively from black, blue or rust-colored paint.

"Sandra suggested it, actually," says Barakeh, in reference to Espace SD's director, Sandra Dagher. "She always understands me. I mean, she sees ahead of me the evolution of my work. And I got tired of colors. I realized they were unnecessary." Without them, Barakeh adds, "I could focus on other things, on the form and the line and the texture."

That streamlined focus is everywhere in evidence in this show, in large part because it stands in such stark contrast to a set of paintings in which Barakeh relies heavily on harsh, thick, and cumbersome pigments. These works feel sluggish and overlabored next to Barakeh's lighter and more nimble compositions. A debut exhibition of 21 canvases is substantial. "Facettes" may, in fact, have carried more visual punch had Barakeh and Dagher decided to edit it down to about 10. As the trite saying goes, sometimes less is indeed more.

Zeina Barakeh's "Facettes" is on view at Espace SD in Gemmayzeh through May 21. For more information, call +961 1 563 114

Beirut 09-05-2005
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star

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