War and art practice in Lebanon

October 2006 -

Christine Tohme, Director of Ashkal Alwan, The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts

I was asked to talk about the effects of the recent war on the art scene in Lebanon. The question might seem straightforward, but in fact it is not as it seems; because it implies that a 'normal', 'ordinary' state of affairs has been suddenly disrupted by violence. I would rather put it as such: The wars in Lebanon are like a necklace of beads that have different shapes and colors. It is another episode of the same war, which hasn't stopped, and that, it seems, will never stop. It is, in a sense, like an obstinately recurrent childhood nightmare, which has become part of the movements of our psyche. For me, as for the artists in Lebanon with whom I work, a real post-war period has never been reached. What we were living through before the war broke out in mid-July was not post-war. It was a temporary reprieve, one among many since 1975 (the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon), and I would say even earlier, since 1967. There was 1982 - the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; and there was 1996 - the "grapes of Wrath" campaign against Lebanon; not to mention the more recent events with the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. War is, in a way, embedded in the work of artists in Lebanon, even when it is not "about" the war.

What was, however, peculiar about this particular crisis in terms of artistic production is the following: in 1975,1982,or 1996, there was no solid video art scene in the country. Video art developed here in the late 80s through the likes of Mohamad Soueid, and Akram Zaatari at a later stage; both are independent video makers. Now, although there is no official cultural backbone in Lebanon, there are platforms, individual initiatives, cultural associations such as Beirut DC, The Arab Image Foundation and Ashkal Alwan etc...

During this particular crisis, Ashkal Alwan, through emergency funds, was able to support a number of artists who wanted to document the crisis; individual voices far from media-like representations. With distance, many more works are sure to be produced.

Christine Tohme (1964, Lebanon) is a cultural organiser, art activist and curator. In 1994 she founded Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for the Plastic Arts, a non-profit organisation that initiates and supports contemporary artistic practice. Through her work, she provides a platform for free thought and critical discourse in Lebanon, promotes and develops critical reflection and cultural theory, and fosters regional and international cultural exchange. This year she receives the Prince Claus Award award in recognition of her struggle and achievements in stimulating local multi-disciplinary art production and art criticism.