As the political and economic crisis continues in Lebanon, the country’s artists and designers are struggling to make sense of the worsening conditions. Designers Tara and Tessa Sakhi, sisters who collaborate as T Sakhi, have created an installation at the Venice Architecture Biennale that works as a pretext for communication.
In the weeks after the explosion at the Port of Beirut, the Sakhis put out a call on their website for messages about how people were feeling after the blast. The responses were angry and anguished.
“Help, we are prisoners,” reads one. “This country is hostage of its warlord government.”
“Yes to the resistance,” reads another.
The two sisters transcribed the responses on to rough, recycled paper, and placed the notes in small felt patches that had been woven by a craft collective in Sharjah. They then hung the more than 2,000 notes on wire mesh in the Giardini della Marinaressa in Venice, creating the effect of a tiled wall in the waterside garden.
Visitors are encouraged to pick up notes, read them and even take them away when they leave. By the end of the exhibition, in November, the sisters hope nothing will be left of Letters from Beirut, only open latticework where there once was a six-meter-high wall.
“The theme of the Architecture Biennale is ‘how will we live together today’? That's precisely what we wanted to elaborate, by showing how design and architecture can be an interface for dialogue and communication, if we allow it,” says Tara, the elder sister.
“Lebanon got a lot of attention in the two weeks after the explosion, but now the news has shifted towards other places,” adds Tessa. “We do not have any means anymore to communicate and to voice all the horrific things that are happening, which are now a huge humanitarian crisis. So we wanted to give these voices a chance – to give people a platform.”
Many of the notes were written by those who had experienced the blast directly, when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated and destroyed most of the port area. But others were written by Lebanese expatriates, in places such as India, Spain and Germany.
The number of Lebanese who left the country in 2019 increased by 89 per cent on the previous year. In 2020, the percentage increase on 2019 was 47 per cent – despite the travel restrictions of the pandemic. The project acknowledges this steady brain drain, and the complexities of emotions among those who have entered the diaspora.
“There were a lot of expats who wanted to add something because they felt badly that they were not there, ” says Tara. “They feel like they are not entitled to suffer, or that they're not victims. But their lives have also shifted. No one wants to leave their country – even us. We never wanted to leave.”
The sisters are now based between Beirut and Venice, where they settled after having worked for several years with glass blowers in Murano. They look like twins but are two years apart, and both studied architecture in Beirut, where they grew up in a Lebanese-Polish family. After graduation they took on interior design projects, gravitating to large-scale commercial work that allowed them to try more ambitious and creative ideas. They now balance their design work with exhibited and commissioned projects for design biennales and exhibitions, such as this one that was organised by the Cultural European Centre.
Their projects help support practices that are on the verge on being lost, which often translates into their working with tactile, natural material. For a recent collection of coffee tables, they used fragments of stone that were left as wastage in Lebanese quarries. In another recent project they are looking into wicker weaving, which is traditional in rural Lebanon.
For Letters from Beirut, they worked with the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council in Sharjah, a collective that supports traditional crafts in the Mena region. They had met members of the collective at Dubai Design Week in 2019, when they represented Lebanon with a work that likewise used the metaphor of a wall that turns into a mode of connection.
The revolution had just begun and they were taking stock of what it had revealed about Lebanese society and the prospects for changing it. They created WAL(L)TZ out of mottled green recycled foam, cutting various shapes into it. It resembled a thick fence, overgrown with mossy plants, with nods to the kind of Memphis postmodernism that embraced playfulness within high design.
“The wall was the embodiment of all the political and social barriers that we encountered in Lebanon, but again we tried to transform it into a means of communication,” says Tara. They invited visitors to symbolically overcome the work, by peeking or even climbing through to the other side.
The project was more successful than they bargained for. In part because of the number of children who began playing on it, the recycled foam began coming apart towards the end of the project.
“It was really nice,” says Tessa. “We saw the wall almost completely disintegrate and the holes open up even larger, to break through even more boundaries and obstacles.”
WIth Letters from Beirut, too, the public take-up of the exhibition has been surprising. Some of the messages were left anonymously, but others included their writers’ email addresses. Many of the visitors to the Giardini have struck up correspondences with the notes’ authors.
“Writing is therapeutic,” says Tessa. “And receiving letters from strangers has been a form of compassion and empathy, like therapy for both.”
“People can relate to each other, whatever the situation is because feelings are feelings,” says Tara. “They cross borders. And it was really important to archive all these feelings because there are no reforms being done. We have not gotten any acknowledgement for what has happened. The government is pretending nothing happened, and they're just waiting and expecting the Lebanese people to move on and to be resilient as they have been after the Civil War. This is a way for us to resist against forgetfulness.”
Currently, the wire mesh is beginning to show in parts, opening up sight-lines across the garden – and the work's sentiments, generously given away, are travelling across the globe.
'Letters from Beirut' is at the Giardini della Marinaressa, Venice, open daily from 10am – 6pm until 21 November 2021. Entry is free