Six months after the blast that devastated Beirut, Abed Al Kadiri suddenly moved to Paris, where he had acquired an artist’s visa known as the Talent Passport.
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“The departure was not only geographical, but also emotional and psychological,” he says.
“We’ve all been traumatised by what happened, but we didn’t know how to deal with that trauma. I only started to make sense of it when I left the country.”
He speaks to The National from a cafe in Paris, not far from Cite Internationale des Arts, where he has been awarded a studio space by Al-Mansouria Foundation.
“Staying in Lebanon produced nothing other than a daily struggle for our basic rights. I knew I would have more opportunities abroad to support my family than in Lebanon,” he says.
Al Kadiri thought he could begin to address his trauma a month after the blast, when he produced two large murals inside the devastated Galerie Tanit in Gemmayze. The drawings on 80 panels were sold as part of a charitable fundraiser.
“I thought that being inside the gallery and doing this exhibition would be a form of healing. But in reality, it was another hard experience."
This is not Al Kadiri’s first exile from the city. During Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in 2006, he fled to Kuwait, only returning in 2014. “When I came back, I was doing my best to stay in Lebanon," he says.
The anti-government protests of October 2019, at which Al Kadiri was an active participant, further compelled him to stay. “The day the revolution started I had flown out to Beijing to give a talk at a museum. I immediately realised I had to go back to Lebanon. I wanted to be a part of what was happening."
Days later, he cut his trip short and flew back as protests continued to gain momentum. “I was out on the streets every day, protesting from the morning until night time. I couldn’t really make art during that time."
Instead, he kept a visual diary of his experiences, based on photographs he took with his phone. But the violence against protesters prevented him from staying on the streets.
That experience, followed by the blast, prompted the artist to leave. “I was alone for months when I first arrived because of the pandemic. That’s when the events of the past two years really hit me."
Today, Al Kadiri remains spiritually connected to Lebanon, and torn about his new life in France.
“I don’t want to lose my connection to Beirut. I feel there is something unsolved for me there. I was part of the revolutionary process, and I still want to be part of it, even if it is so difficult for me to be there,” he says.
“All of my emotional and psychological texture as an artist came from this city. It’s where I was born and raised, and where I witnessed its wars.”
Later this month, Al Kadiri will unveil 10 drawings from his diaries of the revolution at London’s Cromwell Place with Galerie Tanit.
“They are large-scale drawings on rice paper using Chinese ink – two mediums that I brought back from China,” he explains. “They reflect my physical presence at the protests, and document significant moments of the revolution.” He is also working on a painting project about the impact Lebanon’s social and political crisis has had on its youth.
But in these times of crisis, Al Kadiri struggles to make sense of his role as an artist. “The people in Lebanon are really suffering,” he says. “I can’t imagine a place for art at this time. How can art support or help when there is no hope for life?”
It's a difficult question for Beirut's cultural community, and one that only they will be able to answer.