Notre Dame Cathedral inspires new exhibition at Paris's Institute du Monde Arabe

“Through Paris, I would like to introduce people to the arts of the Arab world,” says French-Lebanese art collector Claude Lemand

+ Khaled TAKRETI, Notre-Dame, 2019. Acrylique sur toile, diptyque, 130 x 194 cm.
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Nearly nine months after a shattering blaze, Paris's revered Notre-Dame Cathedral is still making headlines with developments that have not been so reassuring.

The cathedral fell silent with no Christmas Mass taking place in December – a first in 200 years. In addition, the cathedral's rector, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, came out with the shocking statement that there's a "50 per cent chance" the structure cannot be saved. Even critics have been vocal about President Emmanuel Macron's "unrealistic" expectation of achieving restoration plans by the time the Summer Olympics take place in the French capital in 2024.

However, looking on the bright side of the current situation, a group of contemporary artists – most of whom hail from the Arab diaspora – have joined forces to pay tribute to the cathedral by revealing new paintings inspired by the 850-year-old monument, for an exhibition held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in the city.

This small yet heartfelt presentation represents a second and final iteration of a year-long tribute. Garnering positive reactions from the French press and public, the first showcased works – from a bold wood panel highlighting the profile of the cathedral to an abstract single-brushstroke painting of a Madonna and Child statue – by Dia Al Azzawi, Najia Mehadji, Boutros Al Maari and Mohamed Lekleti.

Supported by the IMA's president, Jack Lang, and director, Eric Delpont, this intimate exhibition of five poignant works was initially spearheaded by veteran French-Lebanese art collector Claude Lemand. Championing and exhibiting Arab luminaries such as Shafic Abboud, Etel Adnan and Abdallah Benanteur to the French public since the 1980s, Lemand left Lebanon in the 1970s, during the civil war, to pursue a new life and career in France.

Claude Lemand
Claude Lemand

In October 2018, Lemand and his wife, France, made history by ­generously donating the largest art collection to a French cultural institution. Founded in 1980, IMA received a staggering total of 1,300 artworks produced by Contemporary and Modern artists from the Arab world. "Through Paris, I would like to introduce people to the arts of the Arab world," Lemand tells The National. "Hopefully, this could give a better and more beautiful image of our countries."

Seeing the tragedy unfold in Paris unleashed many emotions and brought back haunting memories for Lemand. "When the fire destroyed the cathedral, I felt devastated, just like millions of others. It reminded me of Lebanon and the beginning of the civil war, when I was kidnapped and injured," he recalls. "For me, it was a psychological and physical crisis and I have not returned to Lebanon in 44 years."

Lemand called upon his artist friends to take part in his commemorative project. "When I was speaking with the participating Arab artists, I found out that they had heard of the Notre-Dame Cathedral when they were children, mostly through Victor ­Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. And in fact, when they visited Paris, the first place they went to was the cathedral. They adopted the idea that Notre-Dame does not solely represent the history of France and Europe, but it represents world heritage," explains Lemand.

A thoughtful touch, the exhibition is being held on the fourth floor of the museum, offering a charming, faraway view of Notre-Dame. Every work shown is rather like a self-portrait: not only does it give insight into the practice of the artist, but also cleverly reflects upon his own experiences and memories.

Making an appearance at the show is the Yemeni-born painter Nasser Al Aswadi, who lives in Marseille. For this exhibition, he has presented a remarkable, large painting, where, if you look closely, you'll see the Arabic word Salam (Peace), which he has painted over and over again – a signature act of his artistry. From afar, the overall image shows the cathedral's famous rose window. A deeply personal work, the deterioration caused by the fire reminded Al-Aswadi of the tragedies of the war in Yemen. On the other hand, he also apparently brings to attention a staple of Yemeni architecture: the omnipresent and colourful stained glass windows known as the Qamariya, which, according to traditional belief, ward off evil.

Manabu Kochi, Notre-Dame, 2019.

Sombre shades of colour explode in Palestinian artist Hani Zurob's Maryamuna, meaning Our Mary. Similar to some of his earlier works, the artist has used a peculiar combination of pastel and tar, a pungent material he claims brings back memories of his childhood, when, during the First Intifada, tar was used to cover up graffiti writings. In a conceptual manner, Zurob links Notre-Dame with the Virgin Mary. "What he is trying to say is that we won't forget Mary, who represents Palestine," says Lemand. "He has taken this subject from a historical and symbolic point of view."

One of the most arresting and emotionally charged compositions on view is by Syrian artist Khaled Takreti, whose diptych boldly portrays the cathedral's famed gargoyles (one of them is actually a self-portrait): their open mouths almost indicate a cry of despair. The artist, who lives in Paris, was particularly inspired by the words of Hugo, who wrote of a fire in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: "All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight … there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame."

Hussein Tai, Notre-Dame, 2019.
Hussein Tai, Notre-Dame, 2019.

Similar to Takreti, artist Hussein Tai, who lives in ­Copenhagen, dually experiments with the figurative and the abstract for his tribute painting on paper, Kanat Hunak (She was there). The artist, who grew up in war-torn Baghdad and was deeply affected by the fire, says the poetic title of his work references Mary protecting the cathedral from further damage.

Japanese artist Manabu Kochi also contributed to the show with a vivid red portrayal of a phoenix flying over the cathedral, which he considers to be like "a mother … ­embracing all beings with love and peace". Lemand, who has known the Okinawa-born artist for three decades, says Kochi was inspired by the incident in Paris, but was also thinking of the fire that swept Okinawa's centuries-old Shuri Castle last October. That fire reminds the viewer of this symbolic piece that like the phoenix, the Notre-Dame cathedral will rise again from the ashes.

“Hommage d’artistes à Notre-Dame” runs at the Institut du Monde Arabe until April 19