I first went to Lebanon in 1990. At that time, American hostages were still imprisoned in the country. Feral dogs roamed the streets at night. There was no reliable electricity. I was on assignment for NPR and my friend and colleague, Geraldine Brooks of The Wall Street Journal, observed that the city's horizon of collapsed buildings and those along the so-called green line, looked like "stacks of folded linen."
Like this verbal image, the visual images in this exhibition by 29 Lebanese artists help us to see Lebanon's past and present in new ways. While the works deal directly with the war, they also cross into transcendence and the future. Lebanon's civil war lasted from 1975 until 1990 and claimed more than a quarter-million casualties and lives. While the future is insecure, Lebanon seems poised to reclaim its cosmopolitan place in the Middle East. And that’s a good thing.
When the Katzen Arts Center at the American University in Washington, D.C., decided it wanted to do an all-Lebanese show, director Jack Rasmussen contacted Amal Traboulsi. Traboulsi, a gallerist and curator, kept her Beirut gallery open throughout the civil war. Traboulsi and Rasmussen co-curated Convergence: New Art from Lebanon. Traboulsi observes that those artists over 50 have brighter, wilder, imagery — whereas the younger "war generation" seems robbed of color and, in her words, "the will to live."
But Lebanon is so eclectic, passionate and, in my observation, smart and engaged, that I feel it will persevere in art and culture. This show, frankly, articulates exactly those emotions of re-invention. If you’re lucky enough to be in the Washington area now, the show is up until May 16. Viewing the war through the lives of those most impacted is, to my mind, a valuable experience.