‘Life is too short; death is but a brushstroke away’: Beirut painter Farah Malhas defies tragedy to exhibit in Dubai

The artist explains how she found solace in creating pieces for World Art Dubai after the port blast destroyed her studio

Farah Malhas painting a mural in her Beirut cafe. Farah Malhas
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Farah Malhas, 36, had just finished having lunch at a friend's house in Beirut when she felt a tremor.

There was, however, little indication of the enormity of what was about to happen.

"Initially, and because the [first] blast was felt underneath the building, I thought the overworked generators had exploded," she says, referring to the backup motors so commonly used in Lebanon because of electricity cuts. "When the second explosion occurred, the entire building shook or rather danced. Dust and rubble entered through the open windows, screams were heard outside and we sat there frozen, waiting for the building to collapse."

It was a moment of dread shared across the city. Everyone expected the worst. “Minutes later, when what we all anticipated did not happen, we ran to the corridor and sat on the floor trying to call loved ones in an attempt to figure out what was going on,” the artist says. “No one knew, and people were speculating. Then it became clear, there was an explosion at the port.”

It has been two months since the explosion ripped through the port in the Lebanese capital and left at least 190 dead and 6,000 injured. Malhas, who will be exhibiting her artwork at World Art Dubai, which opens on Thursday, October 8, has yet to process the latest catastrophe to befall a city not short on catastrophes.

"To be honest, I do not think that I have really come to terms with what happened," she says. "I do not think anyone truly has. In less than a second, Beirut was completely destroyed. It was and still is like living in an apocalyptic movie.

"The extent of the damage was unfathomable. It only became clear the second morning. My home, which is in the Achrafieh neighbourhood, had been badly damaged. Glass facades were blown into the property, aluminium frames detached from the walls and were piled over the furniture and balcony. Stone fragments from the walls that once held these structures were scattered everywhere, doors split into two."

Farah Malhas's art cafe was heavily damaged after the blast. Farah Malhas

After assessing the wreckage at her apartment, Malhas's thoughts turned to her shop, Afaf – The Cake Lounge. Named after her maternal grandmother, it also acts as a studio for her paintings. Getting there was like walking "through Armageddon", she recalls.

"It was fewer than 500 metres away from the site of the blast, so we assumed it sustained some sort of damage. But nothing could prepare us for what we saw. My reaction was one of total disbelief. I did not know whether to laugh or cry. It was all gone. Everything."

It is profound to want to create and recreate close to a dozen pieces in such a short amount of time, but I decided to take this as a personal challenge of sorts, because if I can do this then I can do anything

Malhas had been preparing to introduce her paintings to the world for the first time at World Art Dubai, alongside the works of artists from more than 20 countries. Though her life was thrown into turmoil in a matter of minutes, she did not allow herself to wallow in self-pity.

“I did not have the time nor luxury to emotionally deal with what occurred because we were all busy picking up the pieces of what each of us lost.”

As she looked to recover her bearings, she started painting again. "Hope and my love of art made me pick up my brush again," Malhas says. "It is profound to want to create and recreate close to a dozen pieces in such a short amount of time, but I decided to take this as a personal challenge of sorts, because if I can do this then I can do anything."

As a child Malhas was encouraged by her father, Abdel Elah, a painter himself, to express herself through art. Born and raised in Amman, she moved to London in 2002 with plans to go to art school, but these fell through because her family could not see a future in the arts for her.

Then, in 2009, she went to Canada briefly before moving to Dubai for three years. Throughout that time, Malhas persevered with art.

Her unique style combines slivers of Arabic poetry with cartoonlike characters, utilising mostly – among other raw materials – oil, acrylic and spray paint on large canvasses.

A work by Farah Malhas, which combines Arabic calligraphy with cartoon characters. Malhas had to recreate work for World Art Dubai after her paintings were destroyed in the Beirut blast. Farah Malhas

It was the tragic and unexpected death of her father from a sudden illness in 2012 that led her to Beirut – where her father had lived as a student – two years later. This set her on the journey of self-discovery, which continues today.

"While studying for my master's, I reignited my passion for baking out of my home kitchen," Malhas says.

"With my grandmother's recipes in hand, I started supplying desserts to an array of local restaurants with the aim of one day opening my own. A few years later, in 2017, I took a leap of faith and opened a cafe and bakery in the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood – a melting pot of culture, heritage and all things art."

Malhas spent a year getting the place up and running, from overseeing its architecture and interior design to its menu creation. "It had to be perfect," she says.

Farah Malhas is now trying to raise funds to reopen her cafe. Farah Malhas

After her art cafe was destroyed in August, Malhas and a group of friends set up an online fund-raiser, which she hopes will cover her losses and, if enough donations are raised, will resurrect the space in some form.

Malhas says that despite the recent trauma, her art has always been about perseverance, starting when she moved back to Lebanon.

"My art is not about Beirut. It is mostly inspired by my own collage of sorrow and tragedy," she says.

“For me, this specific style of work has become a means of therapy and a way to make light of heavy situations.”

For now, Malhas is looking ahead to experiencing World Art Dubai for the first time. "I am grateful for all the love and support I have already received from World Art Dubai. I hope to make them proud," she says. "I look forward to introducing my art to Dubai and the region. From there, I shall take things one step at a time.

"If anything, 2020 has taught me not to plan ahead too much," she says. "Things can and will change in a split second. Live in the moment, be grateful and stay away from anything and everything negative. Life is too short; death is but a brushstroke away."

World Art Dubai runs from Thursday, October 8 to Saturday, October 10 at Dubai World Trade Centre. More information is at www.worldartdubai.com