I recently attended a photography exhibition at The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai, titled Open Wounds. The group exhibition showcased the work of George Awde, Rhea Karam, Sirine Fattouh, Rima Maroun and Randa Mirza. These Lebanese photographers were born in the years following the outbreak of civil war in Lebanon, in 1975, and grew up knowing only a country devastated by war. War is a formative aspect of their individual paths and instability is a common experience they live over and over.
‘Open Wounds’ make the wounds of war speak without ever showing them. The photographers have selected and captured fragments of lives and cities and have superimposed their lived and present lives in very different approaches.
Awde (b.1980) exhibited photographs from his ‘shifting grounds’ (2011-12) series, which locates itself in Beirut’s interstitial spaces and shows the city to us as estranged images of lives suspended. A photograph, which stood out for me, shows a scene looking out from a window towards a balcony area. There is a figure, a male I think, standing on the balcony with their back to the viewer. The man, wearing a white hoody, stands with his hands holding the railing while his head is bowed. The balcony, the man and the building beyond are blurred due to shallow depth of field but are still identifiable. In sharp focus, at the top of the frame are the remnants of a window blind or curtain. It is brown, ragged and appears to have red markings or stains on it. I found the overall effect very powerful. The man’s posture seems to reflect despair while the fragment of window coverings is evidence of destruction and trauma. The red markings on the blind do not appear to be blood, perhaps instead pen or crayon. However, the red colour, accompanied with the themes of war and despair seems to carry associations of violence.
The colour red also features heavily in the work I viewed by Fattouh (b.1980) from her ‘Rituels’ series of work. ‘Rituels’ was taken in the south of Lebanon in the village of Nabatiyeh in 2006. The Shiite Muslim Community was commemorating by the Achoura the brutal massacre of the Imam Husayn by intentionally mutilating themselves. Fattouh took the photographs while walking with the men as they hit themselves and became drenched in blood, while woman watched proudly.
Fattouh had extracted some of the participants in the ritual and displayed them against large white backgrounds. The men’s clothes and skin were literally drenched in blood and while this, against the white background, created a very powerful effect, which I found unsettling and difficult to look at.
Maroun (b.1983) grew up during Israel’s assault on Lebanon and recalls being bombarded with images of dead children between the rubble. Haunted by these images she decided to make different images which instead of showing a child’s intense eyes, showed children facing away from the camera, towards blocking structures. This would create a visual language that would speak of what the children are nor showing us. One such image, ‘Untitled ‘ (2007) from the Murmures series, shows a young, dark-haired girl, wearing a simple white top and beige trousers. As she is turned away from the camera, we cannot see her face, although it does appear her head is down-turned. The wall she faces is dirty, spray-painted and has peeling paint. The child’s posture appears to be, in part, submissive, in part, fearful. It brought to mind the, hopefully long gone, humiliating classroom punishment of being made to stand in a corner. The deterioration of the wall seems representative of the hardships Lebanon has faced, yet still stands. I, again, found this image unsettling to look at, although not as much as Fattouh’s photographs. I think this mostly stems from not being able to see the child’s and therefore being unable to read her expression or emotions.
Rhea Karam (b.1982) exhibited work from her ‘Breathing Walls/Lebanon’ series of work. Karam roamed the streets of Beirut during 2007-09 photographing wall which she describes as ‘act as windows to the conflicts engulfing their surroundings. In times of strife walls offer a means of communication and self-expression for members of all social and religious communities’. Karam believes walls are storytellers, absorbing and reflecting their surroundings, becoming silent witnesses to our daily lives and battles.
‘Footprints’, (2009) shows a low view of a, mainly, orange coloured wall. The ground in front of the wall is strewn with rubble while brown, dead grasses sit at both the bottom left and right corners of the frame. The wall is scarred with what may be bullet holes. This, however, is not what first draws the eye. Two white shoe footprints have been stenciled on the wall in white paint. The seem to march diagonally upwards towards the top left hand corner of the frame, one foot in front of the other. It is these two points that dominate the composition. I pondered on the significance of the footprints. Where they symbols of progress, or of military presence? Or perhaps they were representative of the great number of Lebanese who, in response to the fighting, were forced into exile abroad? Having an optimistic day, I decided upon the former that the footprints could be viewed as the march of progress.
‘Flowerpots’ (2009) shows an exterior wall with a single window on the upper right-hand side. Karam has included a small section of a gate on the right hand side of the frame which suggests that we are looking at the outside of a home. The wall is, again, scarred, with what may be bullet holes and plaster work is crumbling. The wall is decorated with various examples of graffiti, some fading and others fresher, showing the passage of time. A bright yellow sign is pasted on the wall, with Arabic text and a phone number, an advertisement perhaps? The window is barred and is covered from the inside with fabric and mesh. Attached to the windows exterior is a shiny crescent moon and star, a symbol of Islam. At the base of the wall there sits a row of more than a dozen potted plants, of varying descriptions. This pots they sit in are also varied, from decorative pots, to recycled large cans. The plants add a row of colour to scene and, for me, the greenery and growth add a sense of optimism while the can/flower pots show resourcefulness and resilience.
Overall, I found the premise of Karam’s photographs interesting. It is something that I will bring to mind the next time I see a wall covered in graffiti and/or posters and fliers and ask myself in what way does that reflect the views of groups of individuals.
Randa Mirza (b.1978) displayed photographs from three different series of work.
“La grotte aux pigeons” are black and white photographs depicting young men and boys jumping off Beirut’s coastal cliff facing the notorious arch like “Pigeon’s rock”. ‘La grotte aux pigeons #1” (2003) has a tall narrow frame. At the top of the frame there is a young man captured in mid-air, arms and legs stretched backwards and head and chest reaching forward as he dives towards the water. 2/3’s of the way downs the frame we see a crowd of spectators standing atop of a rock. At the bottom of the frame you can see the back of a boy’s head while he watches the divers. The first thought that came to me when I viewed this photograph was the energy that the scene conveyed. Although there is no motion blur, there is no ambiguity that the man is moving and the eye looks to the empty space below him, anticipating his movement. I also thought of the fearlessness displayed in making such a bold leap. In this photograph and a few others from the series, I noted an entirely male gathering of spectators and divers. This did cause me to consider if the dive was a vehicle for male competitiveness and bravado? I did a little more research on Mirza and noted that this was indeed the case. Mirza notes that
‘the photographs emphasis an exaggerated display of machismo that defines homosocial relations in patriarchal societies. The only woman taking part in the spectacle is behind the lens’. The image also made me think about cultural traditions and how during periods of change, such as the reconstruction of Lebanon after the war, there is a need for some things to remain the same, people rely on traditions and rituals for this.
The ‘Beirutopia’ series of photographs by Mirza captures billboard images and slogans that represent luxury lifestyles that the efforts of reconstruction project. The virtual buildings are framed by their real environment, which reflects the transformations. ‘a charming residential building’ (2011) shows a billboard display of a luxury apartment building complete with shiny balconies and landscaped surroundings. Mirza has cleverly captured the shot in a way that meant that on first glance I did not realise I was looking at a billboard. When I did however, several tears in the billboard poster also became apparent. The tears, seems to add to the idea that I was viewing a fragmented reality and that the illusion of the ‘charming apartment building’ was fragile. In the foreground of the photograph, below the billboard, the real environment is evident and the viewer is forced to note the disparity between the projected and the current reality. The foreground holds two, seemingly abandoned, large concrete barrier blocks splashed with paint, which most definitely do not appear luxurious or charming.
Mirza also exhibited some pieces from her Parallel Universe (2006-09) series, which subscribes to the ‘multiverse theory’. This theory is a hypothetical set of multiple possible universes existing simultaneously. Mirza’s work exposes the coexistence of past and present layers of war and peace realities. She manipulated images from the 1975 and 2006 Lebanese wars to construct images of horror and leisure, challenging he gap between politics and entertainment.
The first photograph from this series I viewed was ‘Untitled 2’, which, on first look, I found confusing. It shows a rubble-strewn street on which a tank sits on the left of the frame. There are four men in uniform, two stand forward of the tank with their hands on their hips, while one leans against the tank and the fourth crouches on top of it. The four men are unsmiling and are all looking towards the camera lens. To their left stands a No Stopping street that sits at a slight angle. To the right of the soldiers an elderly woman stands wearing a long grey coat and a headscarf. She holds a large Jerry can under a water tap that stands at the edge of the road while staring at a point that the viewer cannot see. The tank, the soldiers, the debris and the civilian woman gathering basic provisions all suggest that scene is a checkpoint or roadblock from either the 1975 or 2006 conflicts.
The long gun of the tank reaches diagonally into the centre of the frame and leads the eye to a young, blond-haired woman who has turned slightly to smile into the camera. The effect is confusing and slightly bizarre.
I quickly realised that this was an example of Mirza’s photograph manipulation and the young woman had been added to the original image. This awareness helped me to notice several strong contrasts between the young woman and the group of people behind her. The photograph of the blond woman looks like it could have a holiday snapshot. She appears carefree, smiling, relaxed and raises her left hand to make a peace sign. A symbol, that contrasts sharply with the tank behind her. The soldiers behind have a deadpan stare, their postures tense while the elderly woman appears to have the weight of the world upon her shoulders. The eye is drawn to the brightly coloured red and blue top the young woman wears and I noticed these colours mirrored the colours of the road sign, acting as colour accents against the neutral coloured setting and clothing of the other people in the image. Viewed together the overall scene suggested ‘war tourism’, which is such an abhorrent concept that looking at this image made me feel uncomfortable. However, this demonstrates the power that viewing the surreal rather than predictable can have. This is an image I will remember.
I enjoyed viewing this exhibition and liked that each photographer had a unique take on the topic. No photographs explicitly show scenes of war yet I still found many of them unsettling to view. As the premise of the exhibition was to make the wounds of war speak without ever showing them I found myself looking very closely at the photographs and the visual clues they held in order to consider and interpret their narratives.
The exhibition at The Empty Quarter has now finished but the artist’s work can be viewed and further information gained by visiting their websites.