Hatem Imam’s art show takes over Metro Al Madina in Beirut

Organised by Art Design Lebanon, the non-profit online and pop-up platform is known for staging exhibitions in unconventional spaces

Artist Hatem Imam. Photo: Vartan Seraydarian
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Ahead of the official reopening of Metro Al Madina, Beirut's storied cabaret venue later this year, artist Hatem Imam is presenting his second solo show at the new venue.

Titled Slumber's Tongues and running until July 20 at the previously shuttered Aresco Palace Theatre, the show is organised by Art Design Lebanon, the non-profit online and pop-up platform known for staging exhibitions in unconventional spaces. It is presented as Imam’s most ambitious exhibition to date, featuring 10 oil and mixed media paintings and 13 monotypes, all created in the past six months, with abstract landscapes as the focus.

“My work has always been investigating abstraction and landscape,” Imam tells The National. “I'm interested in this idea of creating images of places because we want to demonstrate a certain relationship or dynamic that exists between us and the place, whether it's about belonging or ownership or exerting power over certain spaces.

“Paradoxically, in order to create images of a landscape, you need to be outside of it – for example, on top of a hill or a rooftop, to be able to see the city or landscape – to be able to capture it,” he adds. “There's a lot of writing about alienation as the condition of generating landscape images or artwork.”

Imam says the show is a departure from his earlier work, as his new abstract pieces have started to have figures emerge from the patterns he creates. He sees it as a continuation of his interest in how the eye tries to make sense of abstract shapes, searching for something familiar to relate to – often the form of people or faces.

Slumber’s Tongues is the third exhibition of Imam’s work with Art Design Lebanon – but his fifth collaboration with founder Annie Vartivarian, who hosted his first solo show in 2018. Having seen his work evolve over time, she was keen to exhibit his latest offerings.

“When I first met Hatem five years ago, it was clear he is a person who knows what he wants. He has a vision for his work – not just the paintings, but the whole installation, down to every creative detail,” Vartivarian says.

“I wanted to run this show last May, but he wasn’t ready psychologically, with everything that was happening in the country. He went on a residency and then came back in November with a plan.

“He said ‘at the end of the year I will stop working [at Studio Safar] for six months, and we will do the show,’” she recalls. “I couldn’t be happier to now showcase his works.”

Specifically designed with Metro’s new space in mind, the scenography of the exhibition is an integral part of the art experience, leaning into the theatrical elements of the space. Imam had a clear vision for how the works would be displayed.

“I do believe that the way in which you're showing the work could say something additional about the art,” he says. “In this show, there are three aspects that I wanted to apply – the first is that I wanted to impose a certain distance between the artwork and the viewer. I want them to see the artworks from far away.

“The second thing is that you can only see one painting at a time, as they're not lined up next to each other. The third thing is that there's also a soundscape that is related to each one of the paintings,” he adds. “With all of this in mind, I needed a big space and I also felt that there is an element of performance at Metro's new location, which the theatre lends itself to and so the layout worked well for what I had in mind.”

To achieve these goals, Imam has created a series of corridors in the space, with a single painting placed at the end of each, forcing the viewer to see each one individually, at a distance, before coming closer. It also separates the viewers themselves, allowing the audience to experience each artwork alone – echoing the peaceful isolation often associated with seeking out a view of a landscape.

Each painting has a track playing from a speaker behind it, which means that as viewers get closer, the sound gets louder. The soundscapes are a continuously looping pulsing sound, created on a synthesiser, acting as the heartbeat of each painting.

The paintings themselves are colourful, tangling patterns of lilac, blue and pink with black and white. The bright hues are a poignant match to the vibrant music, which Metro will once again stage when it officially reopens in a few months – the space is currently only partly open while refurbishments are being completed. When done, cabaret productions will be staged again.

Founded in 2012 by Hisham Jaber and a group of theatre enthusiasts in a small, intimate space in Hamra, the venue quickly became a cultural hot spot, known for its satirical musicals and concerts. Some of its shows, such as Bar Farouk and Hishik Bishik, have been running for 10 years and have been performed on global stages.

Moving to Clemenceau Street, the bigger space will allow it to showcase other types of culture, as it seeks to diversify its offerings. It will also help the theatre to financially sustain itself amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, by increasing its seating capacity from 250 to 1000, with a wider stage allowing for larger productions and hosting international shows, films and workshops.

Slumber’s Tongue runs until July 20 at Metro Al Madina in Beirut

Updated: July 15, 2023, 3:02 AM