Lebanese independent curator Amanda Abi Khalil strongly believes in art as a trigger for social change. Such conviction is written all over her Temporary Art Platform project, which aims to shift artistic and curatorial discourse about Lebanon through residencies, research projects and public art commissions. It also traverses her whole conversation with PIPA Institute curator Luiz Camillo Osorio, exchanged email when Abi Khalil was finishing up a Delfina Foundation residency in London. Be it talking about the Lebanese arts and culture scene today, the connections between Brazilian art and that of her home country, or envisioning a future for contemporary art in general, Abi Khalil – who lived in Brazil in the 1980s as a war refugee – is determined to build bridges from Lebanon to the world; from society to the art scene. “I see art as a creator of ‘’commons’’, which we urgently need to reinvent and assert more in the art world,” she states.
Luiz Camillo Osorio in conversation with Amanda Abi Khalil
It is always interesting for someone in a peripheral milieu as the Brazilian, to learn a bit about a cultural context such as the Lebanese, especially Beirut. As Rio, Beirut was a trendy place in the 1950’s with its own modernity and a rich historical background as a Mediterranean capital. Then we had the civil war between 1975-1990, which destroyed most of its cultural heritage. How such a historical past penetrates the Lebanese art scene?
It is interesting that you consider the Brazilian milieu as peripheral. From my perspective and the one no longer defining the South in relation to a geographical centre, Brazil is a centre of that other part of the world!
The Lebanese wars (1975-1990 and 2006) had colossal impact on the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage but this type of destruction is immanent in war contexts, these things no longer count when more than 150,000 people have lost their lives and 17,000 people are still reported missing for example (in a population of only 3 million people). It is the past.
I am much more concerned with the post-war destruction that has been ongoing since the “renovation” plans of downtown Beirut. Our cultural and natural heritage is being destroyed as we speak due to real estate speculation, state corruption and market urbanism.
The city is being deprived from its shore (private resorts are taking over the Raouché of Dalieh and Ramlet el Bayda, our last free direct accesses to the sea). Imagine Rio without a beach!
Since 2015, the country has been drowning in garbage. Sea, soil and air are contaminated with toxic waste, and pollution levels have reached unprecedented peaks. There is definitely an urgency of preserving both our cultural and natural heritage, especially when people are living day by day on ‘’survival mode’’. Lebanon has not yet ‘’re-built’’ its public and social infrastructure: electricity shortage, absence of public transport and infringement of human rights are some of the wars’ protracted battles.
The art scene has been tackling the recent past (the civil war) for nearly fifteen years. Post-war practices defined contemporary art in Lebanon in the 90s and shaped aesthetics (post-documentary) forms (lecture performances for example) and genres (research-archive based practices), imbued with investigative, poetic, conceptual and sometimes nostalgic qualities.
The historical past you are referring to has been less the focus of artists than institutions. Organizations such as Umam D&R, the Center for Arab Architecture, the Arab Image Foundation or the Amar Foundation have been collecting, archiving and preserving what is left from that cultural heritage with a focus on architecture, photography, films and music.
Contemporary artists like Marwa Arsanios (“All about Acapulco”), Siska (“in the ruins of Baalbeck studios”), Raed Yassin, Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas (“Lebanese Rocket Society”) to mention the first artists coming to my mind, have worked on the period of the 50’s and 60’s. Their projects celebrated a lost period, uncovered untold narratives and cultural heritage or critically looked at the present through architectural, photographic and film archives including Playboy magazines (Raed Yassin Haute Couture).
Art historical and curatorial research on the pre-war art scene is also greatly expanding. There has been a particular interest in the Lebanese modernist period lately and the unearthing of artist’s archives from the 50’s and 60’s. Octavian Esanu, the curator behind The American University of Beirut’s art gallery has been dedicating his work on the study of the Lebanese art historical legacy to critically reflect on (the art of) our time through exquisitely curated exhibitions.
How did the political situation in Lebanon influence your decision to develop and work in a platform on public art – Temporary Art Platform? What are the objectives of your platform?
When I moved back to Lebanon from Paris in 2011, I was the curator of a one-of-a-kind art centre, The Hangar, which was located in the southern suburbs of Beirut (Hezbollah headquarter). We dedicated our programming to contemporary practices in relation to the archives of the civil war and the focus on audience-outreach was a very central and political one. I was faced with an interesting challenge to work with an artistic community striving for criticality and discursive projects and a local community with very different expectations and needs from a cultural centre. The space had to operate both as a sophisticated research-driven art space and ‘’accessible” public space. It was an incredible learning process, I was young and the resources were limited, but everything I did there was driven by a conviction that interesting projects could emerge in that terrain yet to be explored between a (populist) locally oriented programming, and an (elitist) globally experimental one, social art practices made total sense.
When I created Temporary Art Platform I carried this mission of mediating contemporary art while supporting discursive levels of artistic production as my main curatorial and political criteria. There is definitely a very vibrant and critical art scene in Beirut, with museums, galleries, collections and independent art spaces. We wanted to fill a gap and focus on developing audiences for the arts while supporting projects in the realm of social art practices (relational, participatory, community-based, public art practices, the jargon doesn’t really matter).
The political claim of Temporary Art Platform is that it is a context-responsive curatorial project. Firstly it is a platform, we don’t have a physical space, and the team can grow from one to ten people depending on the project’s needs. I wanted the institutional format to respond to the reality of the context in which it operates: flexibility, uncertainty, political instability and lack of financial sustainability were the challenges we took into account. In a cultural landscape where public funding is non-existent and structural funding hard to find, fundraising is a burden for small nonprofit organizations. Therefore, TAP’s projects only happen when three elements reunite: an idea (emanating from an artist, curator, institution, member of the community), availability of funding and energy! This last element is important. Working in non-artistic contexts like rural areas, hospitals, public and semi-public spaces necessitate a hands-on learning process and adaptation of your usual working tools and processes, which can be very demanding in terms of energy and patience.
TAP is a research, curatorial and production platform that unfolds from scratch every time! But this reinvention of the task is the most generous and rewarding gesture. When we deploy our projects in unusual types of public spaces (not necessarily opposed to private spaces), like newspapers or a contested land, there is always this collective transformation of the space that occurs with the involvement of the artists and the communities. It is particularly powerful during the artist’s residencies we organize in rural areas. The creation of togetherness, even temporarily, is for us a political endeavour.
On another level, we are politically trying to lobby for cultural policies in favour of public art to further develop the field of social art practice and participatory projects. Although the picture I gave above of the country’s social reality sounds depressing, there are no dead ends. I am convinced that we can resist through micro-pilot projects. We have managed so far to get some modest funding from local municipalities in rural areas to support research residencies for contemporary practitioners. I see these little achievements as important foundation stones and I am confident of the power these small stones can carry. Even if they don’t always build foundations, they can ricochet….
When I visited Beirut some years ago I was impressed with projects such as the Arab Image Foundation and Ashkal Alwan. As your Temporary Art Platform, they seem to come out of individual efforts, a sort of resistance facing a political environment that conspires against art, liberty and change. How do you see your platform in that broader context?
The art scene in Lebanon lies mainly on the dedication, passion and hard labour of individuals who once believed and continue to find ways to reiterate their belief in the types of resistance the arts can build to face censorship, discrimination and the state of numbness. A big number of the nonprofit contemporary art institutions that were created in the 90’s are intuitions that got ‘’institutionalized’’ to better fit with the standards of funding entities, that’s my personal point of view. Individual efforts, convictions and dreams are invincible pillars behind these projects. Very few initiatives have survived the departure of their founders with no consequences. They close down or suspend their activities (Ayloul Festival, Espace SD, TandemWorks) or adapt their missions to the needs of the artistic community, of funding realities, or their new teams (Sursock Museum, Beirut Art Center, Arab Image Foundation).
My encounter with the art and culture in the early 90’s in Lebanon did not emerge from the milieu I grew up in. I do believe in the importance of “the encounter with art” to change people’s lives like it changed mine, but foremost I also see art as a creator of ‘’commons’’, which we urgently need to reinvent and assert more in the art world. Subjective emancipation is not class-specific and very few things escape this paradigm. I believe art could contribute to that. Social practice in art relies on collaborative practices; it tightens the space of relations (Bourriaud), which in a context of everyday life (struggle) in Beirut is probably the only breach of hope.
Creating production opportunities for artists and triggering their interest in social (and local) questions is important to counterbalance, but also to enrich the predominant global discourses in contemporary art. Providing artists with production budgets for new works, and establishing ethical, transparent and accountable processes for these collaborations to take place are the instances we focus on. The bilingual tool-guide we published about the administrative and legal framework of working in public spaces in Lebanon, for example, aimed to encourage artists to invest in public spaces despite the impossible challenges and incomprehensible paperwork and procedures they face by giving them tips and legal recommendations. You can only carry these types of long-term visions when you have hope…
As you visited Brazil recently and is developing a project with Lebanese immigration here, I want to ask you a bit about your “first” impressions on our arts scene. Can you pinpoint differences and similarities in relation to the Middle-Eastern context?
When I was in Brazil last summer, I saw great public and private support to the arts. Although the tax incentive is critically looked at from a Brazilian perspective, I think the Middle East has a lot to learn from it. I was quite impressed by how rich, open and diverse the art scene was. I remember visiting MAR (Museu de Arte do Rio) on a regular day and the affluence of its diverse audience struck me. São Paulo has so much to offer to artists and people; I found the exhibition program at MASP excellent and got touched by the political project of Sesc Pompeia. The criticality addressed by the Sorocaba Frestas Triennial I attended on the ‘’post-truth’’ was very interesting. I have vivid memories of the strong committed and relevant introduction speeches given by Daniela Labra, the curator, and Danilo Santos de Miranda, the regional director of Sesc São Paulo, while faces of Brazilian politicians labelled with GOLPISTA [coupist] were falling on our heads and being walked over. Such a thing could have never happened in Beirut! I was with a group of artists who had crashed the preview opening wearing T-shirts “Você convidou ou foi convidado?” (Did you invite or were you invited?)
The Lebanese art scene is obviously very small compared to the Brazilian one and has a more modest art historical legacy. But there is a lot of potential for interesting subjects to be discussed across these scenes. I was surprised to realize that the circulation of contemporary practices between these countries was very limited despite the strong economic and cultural ties they share as a result of the great diasporic Lebanese presence in Brazil.
Adriano Pedrosa’s Istanbul Biennial definitely brought Brazilian practices closer to our region, so does regularly the Sharjah Biennial. Jonathas de Andrade has been in Beirut for a short residency and artist Gui Mohallem developed a series of works with artist Yasmina Reggad on his Lebanese roots and ancestors. VideoBrazil has been also particularly focusing on the Middle East as part of the discourse on the Global South. They actually produced an excellent exhibition of Akram Zaatari with works bringing a very different approach to his practice and included installations and videos of artists Ali Cherri, Roy Dib, Lamia Joreige, Ghassan Salhab, to a name a few, in collaboration with curator Christine Tohmé from Ashkal Alwan. But these are sparse initiatives.
There are many common interests, especially in relation to postcolonial narratives, the obsession with the sea and the representations of both Rio and Beirut as backdrops of (fantasized) cities. An interpretation of Oswald De Andrade’s ‘’Cannibalistic manifesto’’ could be really interesting to discuss with regard to the search of identity in the Lebanese context, for example.
There are also formal and conceptual similarities of artists from the same generation. Art schools and universities have for a long time taught the same Western (male) dominant canonic art history, so I guess it is explainable. Deyson Gilbert’s and Charbel Hage Boutros’ practices draw on very similar conceptual and poetical exercises (see: Gilbert’s“copo com água Benta ao lado de copo com água comum”, 2009 and Boutros’ “Mixed water series”, 2013).
Omar Fakhoury’s ephemeral monument to mark Temporary Art Platform’s residency on the public square in the village of Miziara in 2014 could have been Daniel Murgel’s “Monumento à passagem do tempo” (produced also during a residency in Olhos d’Agua, Portugal) (see images below).
How difficult is it to work with specific cultural and historical contexts in a global art scene that disseminates homogeneous artistic practices?
What interests me in this type of configuration is the point of contact between what you describe as the homogeneous artistic practices (global discourse of contemporary art) and specific cultural and historical contexts. How can they contaminate each other to produce critical discourse and broaden the assumptions we sometimes have on specific contexts?
If the global art scene disseminates artistic practices then why are biographies still mentioned (born in… based in…) in international exhibitions and why are there still regional-focused departments in international contemporary museums? I think of artists’ practices as unique, whether they relate to a specific cultural and historical context or deal with universal subjects. I have a feeling that this recurrent debate is vain although it has been feeding the discourse around contemporary art for the last ten years.
The idea of contemporaneity as a multiple time frame, where translations and misunderstandings are always around, makes us feel as foreigners wherever we are. Are the ideas of place and belongingness important when you deal with public art and site specificity?
Your question reminds me of Claire Fontaine’s multilingual neon “Strangers everywhere”. I am not sure about the word belongingness. If you don’t belong then you are excluded?
I trust the hospitality dynamics, which take place in curatorial practice. In fact, the project I am working on in Brazil at the moment takes hospitality as its overarching theme. As curators we are guests everywhere, we are invited and sometimes we invite ourselves to places (and to artists’ works) and deploy a project that turns us into hosts of the audience and sometimes of the communities who first hosted us! You and I first met at a dinner in which I was invited to cook. I was a guest and a host, which is always my position as a curator in any context of work.
When I got invited last year to curate six site-specific commissions for a hospital in Beirut, I had no clue that there was a whole field of curatorial praxis and discourse around art in healthcare until I attended a seminar on the subject in Copenhagen. When we work in contexts we are less familiar with, the learning process is greater; we have to learn the ‘’language(s)’’. The words ‘translations’ and ‘misunderstandings’ in your question imply the existence of a foreign language, which could sometimes be a professional jargon or cultural code a curator has to apprehend, learn and work with.
With the project I will be curating in Brazil, site-specific commissions will be instigated and I will invite artists to be guests of communities; the exhibition project will definitely be an extension of my interest in social art practices. I am learning a lot about Brazil, the country I have spent part of my childhood in as a war refugee with my family in the 80’s. I am also working on my Brazilian Portuguese…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015. To read more exclusive texts written by Camillo, click here.