Blast-damaged Beirut balcony curtains become artistic symbol of collective healing

Lebanese artist Jad El Khoury's latest installation, Soft Shields, is on display until December 29

A view of Beirut from the window of an apartment affected by the 2020 Beirut port explosion . Photo: Sara Guldmyr
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Lebanese artist Jad El Khoury is known for recontexualising abandoned buildings or architecture bearing the scars of past tragedies. In his latest work he presents the stories of the residents themselves, who are integral to his architecture-driven artistic creations.

Soft Shields, an immersive installation at Beirut’s Galerie Tanit, is the culmination of months of field research in the areas most affected by the 2020 Beirut blast. The show weaves together the stories and testimonies of 13 survivors from different walks of life, all who had one thing in common – tattered balcony curtains.

Wandering the streets of city neighbourhoods Bourj Hammoud and Karantina, the artist sought out homes and businesses with the area's famous striped and colourful balcony curtains that were ripped and torn – remnants of the blast. Offering to replace them with new drapes, the old curtains have now become the centrepiece of his installation, acting as a common thread between the stories of their former owners.

“I'm using the curtains as a symbol and a metaphor of the social fabric of Beirut,” El Khoury tells The National. “I asked them if they wanted their curtains replaced and I was making sure they knew I'm not a charity. It's a mutual interest. They get to have a new curtain and I get to use the old curtains for the gallery exhibition.

“These curtains were the first step, opening for me encounters with the people living in that house or shop. It's relational art and it's socially engaging, participatory work; the curtains led to the stories of the people they belonged to – mainly about the port blast, where they were at the time, how it affected them and how they deal with the aftermath today.”

El Khoury started his career by transforming Civil War-era bullet holes and shell damage on Beirut’s buildings into urban graffiti works enveloping the ruined shapes. Working with fabrics then quickly became an integral part of Khoury’s practice – in this case drawn to the reversal of what was once a protective fabric now a visual reminder of violence.

He gained international acclaim for this 2018 Burj El Hawa project, for which the artist transformed the abandoned and incomplete Burj El Murr into a choreographed installation of balcony curtains hung on 400 windows dancing with the wind and giving life to the derelict building.

After installing it on the tower, he was awarded the Venice’s Arte Laguna Prize and was then commissioned to create similar projects on abandoned buildings in Sicily, Corsica, Dunkirk, Stavanger and other locations. El Khoury also utilised Beirut curtains in his master’s graduation project Healing Blanket (2022), graduating with a master's degree in art and public space from Oslo National Academy of the Arts.

In Soft Shields, 42 old curtains were cleaned and patchwork stitched together to create several banner-like drapes that hung from the gallery ceiling, creating an installation that viewers are invited to walk through and immerse themselves in.

“There's also the metaphor of the ruined curtains that have no value, suddenly, when you put them in this white cube setting, everything transforms and you're questioning what is valuable,” he notes.

El Khoury says that stitching the curtains together alludes to overcoming a lack of connection between people in a community. In relation to the aftermath of the explosion, many stories were born from people coming together to clean the streets, fix houses and share their trauma to help move forward.

“The curtains are the centrepiece, but around that is the documentation of the whole process. I think the actual art is the field research, the work that we did replacing people's curtains, and all the encounters and stories I collected,” he says. “There are photographs by Sara Guldmyr, who joined me and documented the process; both printed photographs and projections with more pictures from the protests, and a map that shows the locations of where the interventions happened.

“There was a guy who fixes cars, a guy who sells manakish and a woman who is a naturally good storyteller and has a lot of character,” he adds. “She starts telling her stories and her husband plays guitar and classical music like Tchaikovsky and Bach. It's like finding gems in the city, all these people with amazing stories and backgrounds, who you would never have known.”

Shortly after the exhibit opened, El Khoury organised a walking tour for 10 people to see the intervention sites and meet with two of the participants. Rather than just play the recorded interviews at the gallery, he felt it was more authentic to allow people to hear the stories first-hand, as they all lived near the gallery.

“One of them, Iskandar Dagher, is a poet. He's an old guy, 80-something [years old], living with his sister who's also 80-something, and when I asked him where he was when the explosion happened, he started reading poems that he'd written about the event, and about the people who helped him the second day to fix his house,” El Khoury says. “That home visit during the walk with participants was so moving.

“I learnt later that four of the visitors have organised themselves to visit him again, and to try to sponsor or find a way to publish his poetry in a book,” he adds. “It's so touching that the project is continuing by itself, after my intervention. I couldn’t have hoped for more than that.”

The participants of the walk have formed a social group with the home and business owners, which for El Khoury is one of the underlying aims of the project. The social support and healing offered by speaking about traumatic events, and creating a positive outcome from tragic beginnings, is an essential part of this artistic process.

While not yet confirmed, he hopes to plan more walking tours for the exhibition, allowing more people to get to know the participants first-hand and widening the support circle.

Soft Shields is on show at Galerie Tanit, Mar Mikhael, Beirut, until December 29

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:03 AM