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French Version

A prodigal son returns to paint

Marwan Sahmarani's first exhibition in Lebanon showcases work from over a decade abroad

"The morning is a disaster," says Marwan Sahmarani with a rueful laugh. The 35-year-old painter is stirring his afternoon coffee at a pensive rate, describing the way he begins an average day, one that usually only ends after he has spent some ten solid hours on his art.

"I wake up in the morning and I just freeze," he says. "I read the newspaper. I look through books. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I feel this blankness, this emptiness.

"I begin drawing at around 11, 12, and it goes from there. It's tough to stop. And it's tough to begin." Sahmarani halts the spoon in his coffee cup and then resumes its steady rotation. "But I have to do it every day. For me, it's like a journal, this work, like writing everyday. I wake up in the morning and I draw and paint, whatever I see, whatever tough news is coming from the Middle East."

In what has became the archetypal narrative of his generation, Sahmarani left his native Lebanon in 1989. He studied at the prestigious Penninghen school in Paris for five years and returned to Beirut in 1995. His return didn't stick. Sahmarani left again for Montreal, where he has been based ever since, keeping tabs on his homeland only through correspondence, the media and occasional visits.

Now, however, it is a few days before the opening of Sahmarani's first-ever exhibition in Lebanon and he has been kicking around Beirut for a few months. Anticipation is legible on his face and evident in a crick he is periodically trying to twist out of his neck. The exhibition is loaded with significance on numerous fronts, and it shows.

First, Sahmarani never expected to show his work in Lebanon. "Too pretentious, to be doing it without living it," he says, in reference to the fact that his paintings stem from the experience of a place in which he no longer really lives.

Second, Sahmarani never expected to show his early work anywhere, to anyone at all. "I never thought I would exhibit the work from 1990, never," he says. "It's immature, it's autodidactic."

Yet Sahmarani's exhibition at Planet Discovery, smack in the middle of Downtown Beirut, is, in essence, a mid-career retrospective. It covers 15 years of the artist's work, from a suite of small, garishly colored paintings on panel that date back to the early 1990s, to a series of visceral and sensual nude drawings from the mid-1990s that recall the anguished, corporeal work of Francis Bacon, to a collection of recent paintings that are massive and monumental, each replete with its own elaborate internal system of meaning.

Much of Sahmarani's recent work was produced in Lebanon. After a decade in Montreal, the artist finally decided to escape the cold Canadian winter with a respite on the shores of the Mediterranean. The shift in location profoundly altered his color palette and introduced a number of new themes into his compositions, particularly related to what Sahmarani calls "salon politics," the tendency to let an obsession with the minutia of Lebanon's political class seep into every conversation and situation that unfolds in even those most intimate corners of the country.

Another significance of Sahmarani's show is that it is only due to the temporary adjournment of the current national dialogue that the exhibition is generally accessible to the public at all.

What's more, the subject matter is quite timely. Spread across an entire wall inside Planet Discovery are nearly sixty small paintings, collectively titled "The Family Portrait," featuring all the major and minor players in Lebanon's local political life. Hassan Nasrallah, Michel Aoun, Nayla Mouawad, Amin Gemayal, and more, they are all there as twisted, expressionistic caricatures.

Then, wrapping around the back wall are a series of paintings that together are called "The Conversation." Recognizable politicians in Venetian masquerade masques are depicted together in meetings, that ubiquitous activity of a weak and ineffective state, set against ostentatious luxury as a background, uttering lines like, "I'm not in a hurry, we'll wait for spring."

But what is perhaps most significant about Sahmarani's show, here and now, is the way in which it ups the stakes for what painting means in 2006 and what it can accomplish in oblique competition with the dominant media of contemporary art, namely photography, video and installation.

Although he now paints daily, for a period of seven years Sahmarani quit painting altogether.

"I stopped painting because of contemporary art, the contemporary art scene and Joseph Beuys," he says, in reference to the German conceptual artist with a fondness for felt and dead rabbits who pioneered performance- and installation-based work in the 1960s. "Joseph Beuys killed me. I went through all his work. I was young. I was 24. I was just doing my paintings and suddenly I felt so small. I couldn't believe in painting anymore."

Because Sahmarani's exhibition features work from before and after that rupture, it offers a remarkable study of an individual artist's evolution.

In 2001, explains Sahmarani, "I just wanted to start painting again for myself because I was happy doing it. It came slowly, slowly. This feeling came, with so much hope to produce, but it came just a little bit, and then a little bit more. I wasn't very confident when I began again. Painting has this huge baggage for me, and I'm trying to empty everything and begin again like a kid."

Sahmarani's canvases from three or few years ago are spare, with single elements of a composition - a boy throwing stones, a woman weeping, the skin of a wrecked building - isolated against solid monochrome backgrounds.

Then, there are two key works in the show that signal major turning points: "The Great Candidate" from 2004, of a young man being hoisted up by his friends against a lurid pink sky, and "The Night Hunters," also from 2004, depicting an arrangement of soldiers around a corpse lying on the ground.

The materialization of that corpse seems to be the threshold leading to the explosion of Sahmarani's most recent work, where he incorporates all that is instinctive and gut-wrenching about his drawings into complex figurative paintings that operate on numerous levels at once. What makes Sahmarani's show so strong is first and foremost the artist's extensive technical skill. His ability to manipulate oils to capture the refractions of light, for example, puts generations of local artists to shame. Sahmarani goes further, layering his compositions like multiple sheets of vellum compressed together. To accomplish this with paint is striking to behold.

And what makes Sahmarani's show not only strong but important is the artist's insistence on collapsing politics and aesthetics together.

Clearly, his work deals with political violence, police brutality, sexual repression and hypocrisy, religious fervor, Palestine, the existence of mass graves in Lebanon, the squandering of reconstruction funds, the materialism of Beiruti society, corruption, graft and doubletalk among the state's leaders.

But his work also explores how painting documents a time and place and how politics are made manifest on the body, affecting physical movements (one's comfort in one's skin) and personal relationships (from legal prohibitions on down to basic stress), both consciously and unconsciously.

"Aesthetics is politics, you can't differentiate between them," Sahmarani says. "It's not a dogma, there is no dogma for the relationship between aesthetics and politics. Politics for me is a step toward understanding painting. Everything for me is a step toward understanding painting. You find politics in people's behavior, in attitudes related to sexuality.

"The thing in Lebanon about sexuality is that men and women are so ashamed of their bodies. That's why the women are always changing what they are, and the men, I don't know. I think if there were more communication about sex, things would be less constrained in everything.

"But this is religion too, and politics, and especially in Lebanon, where we're trying to go against everything. It's all so negative. It's always about what's wrong, the same as in a relationship, always, what's wrong. The politicians are never proactive. Everybody here is so interested in what they say and what they do," says Sahmarani, polishing off his coffee at last and putting his spoon to rest. "And I just don't care."

Marwan Sahmarani's work is on view at Planet Discovery on Omar Daouk Street in Downtown Beirut through March 31. For information please call +961 1 980 650. The show is organized by Fadi Mogabgab Contemporary Art.

Beirut 13-03-2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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