London art installation reflects on civilian clean-up effort a year on from Beirut blast

'Sweeping', by performance artist Sally Souraya, looks at public response to the destruction of Lebanon's capital city

Sweeping Exhibition. Sally Souraya
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For days after the massive explosion that ripped through the Lebanese capital, the constant sound of broken glass scraping pavement was all that punctuated the deathly silence of a city gripped by shock and mourning.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster last year, thousands of Lebanon’s residents took to the streets of Beirut to clear up the wreckage. About 7,000 tonnes of glass shattered when the blast tore through the city, blanketing entire neighbourhoods with debris.

Ordinary people wearing gloves, brooms in hand, became some of the enduring images of civic solidarity from that period, and the inspiration behind Lebanese artist Sally Souraya’s latest work, Sweeping. The multimedia installation, on view at P21 Gallery in London until Saturday, is an exploration of the symbolic and practical implications of the act of sweeping in the context of the aftermath of Beirut’s explosion.

Souraya, 34, who lives in London, was in the UK capital when the blast happened in her home town. Struggling to process the images she was seeing on social media and TV, Souraya says she felt the urge to move and embody the experience of her compatriots.

“I was looking at footage of people in the street and seeing how important it was and being thankful for these people and grateful for them that they actually stopped their life just to go and restore a kind of normality, despite all of the destruction,” Souraya tells The National.

“I focused on the act of sweeping because it's symbolic, but it's also what brought people together. Its solidarity, it's a way of actually processing what happened in a way that is also positive or helpful.”

In a symbolic act of camaraderie and mourning, Souraya decided she would get her own broom and sweep some broken glass on the streets of London.

Poignantly, finding broken glass in the city was her biggest problem. Wherever she asked, she was told that for reasons of health and safety, they couldn’t give her what she wanted.

“It made me reflect more on what it means to actually live in a country where you're just so close to danger that your people are walking on broken glass. People I know were injured by this broken glass and then here in London, to just use it for a symbolic performance, it's hard to get,” she says.

After eventually being given a sheet of glass to smash, Souraya walked across parts of the city spilling and sweeping up the shards along the way, being filmed in the process. She called it her "personal act of grieving" and says she found the repetitive act "healing".

“It kind of relieved me in some ways. I felt closer to what happened. I felt like I'm contributing in my own way, even with all of the limitations I have. It was a way of walking in my loved ones’ shoes and thinking of what they have been going through,” says Souraya, who also works as a full-time occupational therapist.

Her symbolically performative act would not, however, become a full art piece until she finally visited Lebanon 11 months later. Nearly a year after the blast, Souraya filmed interviews with people who had been on the streets sweeping in the immediate aftermath and found many who had only then felt ready to reflect on what had happened to them.

“I wanted to bring their voices and their stories,” she says, of the 10-minute video of footage and testimonies that make up part of the installation.

Her trip also gave her the opportunity to collect some of the shattered glass from the explosion, bits of which can still be found all around the city to this day.

"I wanted the exhibition to bring this reality of what is there. The dust from Beirut, the glass, the brooms, because it's important that these rooms represent all of the effort that these people put in to just help in the street."

Sweeping is on display at P21 Gallery in London until Saturday.

Updated: August 12, 2021, 9:51 AM