7 photos that capture modern-day Lebanon: 'things have changed so drastically'
New visual exhibition looks at the long aftermath of the country’s Civil War
Long power cuts. A banking system in collapse. People on the streets in protest. How can you picture the full chaos of Lebanon today?
The Middle East Institute (MEI), a think tank in Washington, DC that runs an art programme and exhibition space, is hosting a virtual exhibition of Lebanese photographers designed to do just that: give an image of the present-day Lebanon that understands its historical context.
Lebanon Then and Now: Photography from 2006 to 2020 links the Civil War to the current crisis, drawing from work put together by a consortium of Lebanese organisations and the Paris-based Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA).
“The show was meant to be a selection of works from a show that honoured Lebanon at the Institut du Monde Arabe last fall,” explains Lyne Sneige, the director of the Art and Culture programme at MEI. “But then the October protests kicked in and we at MEI decided we can’t just present a show on Lebanon when things have changed so drastically.”
The Civil War ended in 1991, and since then there hasn’t been a proper process for healing of the society, or for any serious economic social regeneration plans for the country
The organisation switched tack and partnered with the Beirut Centre of Photography and the nonprofit organisation Apeal to show images of the present moment. Curated by Chantale Fahmi, the exhibition sets side-by-side works from IMA’s Lebanon: Between Reality and Fiction, which looked at the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War, and newer – and more raw – photographs from the exhibition Revolt, which appeared last fall in an outdoor site close to the protests in Beirut, documenting the recent unrest, the coronavirus lockdown, and the current economic crisis.
Sneige explains that the crisis is a legacy of the Civil War.
“The Civil War ended in 1991, and since then there hasn’t been a proper process for healing of the society, or for any serious economic social regeneration plans for the country,” says Sneige, who grew up in Beirut and spent most of her working life there. “After years of economic and and political mismanagement, you get to a point where the system has imploded.”
Many of the images in the show could just as easily be circulating on Twitter or published in today's newspapers, and succinctly communicate the scale of the response among the Lebanese people to the political crisis.
In a photograph by Hussein Beydoun of a women’s march, a suavely dressed woman in black sunglasses presses her cheek against that of a hijabi woman in no make-up – a keen representation of how the protests have united Lebanon's numerous factions.
A nearby picture by Blanche Eid, The Next Day, taken on October 18, 2019, captures an old woman mid-celebration, her arms outstretched and her face full of joy as a Lebanese flag waves just beyond her shoulder. Painfully, the images also track the violence met by the protests, and their disillusionment, as last October’s optimism has run aground on the banking crisis and Covid-19.
A picture that Beydoun captured in April shows a man outside a burnt-out bank in Tripoli selling surgical masks, fanned out in a black-gloved hand.
Omar Sfeir’s iconic, if slightly mannered, image of two people kissing through the Lebanese flag (The Lovers in Times of Revolution, taken on October 21, 2019) has gained even more resonance since the coronavirus struck, as the flag wrapped around their faces now conjures Covid-19 masks.
Likewise, other works deliberately juxtapose a sense of present and past, such as a photograph taken by Lamia Maria Abillama that shows three older women at home in fatigues, and a young daughter, her round face the picture of innocence and youth, standing in front of them in a gauzy blue dress (Clashing Realities (1–2), 2006–ongoing). The era of combat feels at once sequestered in the past, and very much alive in memory.
The historical context is key to the show, says Sneige, because of Lebanon’s difficulties in finding a neutral representation of post-Civil War events. With its traditionally strong cultural sector, artists have stepped into this breach, from contemporary artists' investigations into the ambiguity of photographs as a mode of documentation, to the way that current photographers are creating a living archive of history.
“This is history that doesn’t exist in history books,” she says of the photographers’ treatment of the Civil War and its aftermath. “History books stop in 1943, when Lebanon acquires its independence – because no one can agree how to write the history of the Civil War. That kind of cultural memory of the country, which is so, so important, is actually carried until now by the creative sector. It is carried by the filmmakers, the photographers, the artists. Their work is documenting this period that does not exist anywhere except for in the minds of the people who lived it.”
Many of the photographers in Revolt were born in the 1980s or 90s, meaning they did not experience the Civil War first-hand. But if this younger generation has looked to move on from the “burden” – as Sneige puts it – of representing the Civil War, the new state of unrest in Lebanon unwillingly provides a pictorial continuity with the images of the country that proliferated in the 1980s. Ironically, in this show the older images provide a sense of stasis: their mode of reflection on the past, even a past pockmarked by violence, runs counter to the photographs of smoke clouds, lines of servicemen, and the generalised fears of contagion signalled by surgical masks. In the uncanny, un-sited space of the virtual exhibition, this is a show that hangs in the air: in Lebanon, in Washington, DC, everywhere, we are all waiting for the dust to settle.
The virtual exhibition Lebanon Then and Now: Photography from 2006 to 2020 runs from July 13, 2020 to September 25, 2020
Updated: July 15, 2020 04:40 PM