How the story of the Lebanese protests is being told through art

It is hard to overstate the role social media is playing in the country’s unrest, not least in spreading demonstrators’ creative imagery worldwide

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Every revolution has its folk heroes. If successful, its most prominent figures may find themselves immortalised in statues, celebrated on stamps or honoured on banknotes – the icons of a new order.

In Lebanon, where widespread anti-government protests have been held for almost two weeks, the most inspiring figures of the demonstrations have already been immortalised by dozens of artists, the unofficial record-keepers of the nascent uprising.

Murals and graffiti scrawled in the streets present one artistic contribution to the protests, but more significant are the hundreds of artworks circulating on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It's difficult to overstate the importance of the role social media is playing in the protests, from informing users of the ever-shifting security situation across the country to reporting violence and human rights violations as well as requesting reinforcements and supplies.

Aside from these practical uses, social media platforms are also serving as the means of circulating slogans, artworks and cartoons that encapsulate the most talked-about moments of the demonstrations and celebrate its grass-roots figures. More impressively, many of these people are creating art in a hurry before or after taking to the streets – or even while protesting. One small collective of artists set up a silk-screening station amid demonstrations in Beirut, inviting protesters to bring bags and T-shirts and offering to print pictures and slogans on them for free.

With their capacity to create a sense of instant community, these platforms have become spaces of virtual protest, hosting a digital uprising that mirrors and supports the physical demonstrations in the streets of Lebanon, from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north.

The impact of artworks inspired by the protests became clear in the early days of the demonstrations. Rami Kanso, a Lebanese graphic designer living in London, was following the protests online when he saw video footage of an unarmed young woman, later identified as Malak Alaywe Herz, defending fellow protesters by kicking a minister's armed bodyguard.

“This woman, in particular, broke a lot of walls for us in Lebanese society,” Kanso says. “The first one is the human versus the weapon… the second one is the human versus the politician’s convoy, because that is a big problem in Lebanon… and thirdly, it’s a woman against oppression.”

Kanso decided to create an artwork celebrating Herz's bravery. His drawing captures her mid-kick, her arms empty, in contrast to the bodyguard's assault rifle. Above her head, Kanso created a speech bubble with a heart in it, a facsimile of the Instagram symbol for liking posts, acknowledging the power of social media. Overnight, his design was shared tens of thousands of times – and not only in Lebanon. Kanso's colleagues at an Arabic TV station reported seeing it shared by friends in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan.

Kanso's image was one of the first in an unprecedented tsunami of artworks inspired by the demonstrations. Hundreds of sketches, paintings and digital illustrations capture crowds waving Lebanese flags and honour people whose actions are seen as symbolic of the spirit of the uprising.

Artistic renderings of a photograph capturing four religious leaders from different faiths walking arm-in-arm have come to symbolise the unity of protesters across sects and classes, while a photograph of a woman wearing face paint inspired by the recent film Joker has been copied by many artists, symbolising disaffection and an anarchic spirit of rebellion.

A photo of a woman in a Joker mask reworked by artist Zarifi Haidar, who creates works in the colour of Lebanon’s flag. Zarifi Haidar
A photo of a woman in a Joker mask reworked by artist Zarifi Haidar, who creates works in the colour of Lebanon’s flag. Zarifi Haidar

An image of a soldier crying is another common motif, representing the clash of loyalties felt by members of the military torn between their duty to serve and their sympathy for protesters, and a photograph of a one-legged man in Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city, picking up rubbish has been widely reproduced as a symbol of the civic responsibility by protesters, who have been voluntarily cleaning the streets each morning. Political moments, such as President Michel Aoun's speech on Thursday in which he refused to step down and blamed sectarianism and corruption for destroying the country, have also been satirised.

Thierry Chehab, who creates one sketch a day relating to the protests, says his artworks are a way of supporting the demonstrations he is unable to attend because of work and childcare. The artworks being shared online play a crucial role in motivating protesters and ensuring the demonstrations retain their momentum, he says. "It's encouraging because when an image becomes an icon it becomes memorable… Whenever you see images circulating, it means that the movement is still alive."

Creative director Paola Mounla started an Instagram account called Art of Thawra (Art of Revolution) a few days into the protests. She reposts images being created by Lebanese artists, attracting roughly 1,000 followers every day. She says the artworks are popular because they encapsulate emotions shared by thousands. "Because those posts are so easy to share, people's thoughts, emotions, ideas and everything they have to say is being spread in a creative way," she says.

Bernard Hage, a cartoonist whose satirical artworks are published under the name Art of Boo, is one of the few artists to engage directly with politics. His cartoons outlining the corruption that led to the protests, ridiculing biased media coverage and mocking politicians’ responses, have been liked and shared by thousands online and printed out to make placards.

"I've been tackling this protest long before it started, in a way, because I've been doing political cartoons for a year now," he says. "I think [cartoons] play a very important role and can also be taken as a small break, like the joke of the day… It's very important to make people laugh."

Artist Zarifi Haidar Marin, who creates paintings of the demonstrations in the colours of the Lebanese flag, says she wants to provide a counterpoint to media coverage of the protests.

"I think the news always shows the violence and all the negative things that are happening," she says. "What struck me about what's happening now in Lebanon is the unity, the organisation, the solidarity between people with different social backgrounds, different religious backgrounds, different ages. The positive side of it is what I want to focus on. We have enough images of the violence, the fires, the tyres."

AtAs countrywide protests continued, several artists began to look to the future, creating imagined symbols of a post-revolutionary Lebanon. Illustrator Yasmine Darwich created six designs for stamps featuring the most recognisable images, while designer Dan Osman envisioned new banknotes adorned with the movement's folk heroes.

Despite the fleeting nature of social media, in which an image can go viral one day and be forgotten the next, Mounla says she hopes that by collecting all the artworks in one place she will create an online archive that will serve as a lasting resource.

“We tend to not record history properly,” she says. “There is no way of seeing what happened in the civil war, really. We’re hoping that with something like this we can record what’s happening – from the artists’ point of view, at least.”