Lebanese Artists Evoke Violent Past, Hopeful Future Nearly 30 artists are featured in Convergence, a new exhibit of Lebanese art currently on display at American University in Washington, D.C. The works articulate painful memories of the country's 15-year civil war — but also emphasize Lebanon's hopes for a promising future.
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Lebanese Artists Evoke Violent Past, Hopeful Future

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Lebanese Artists Evoke Violent Past, Hopeful Future

Lebanese Artists Evoke Violent Past, Hopeful Future

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Artists and thinkers have always reinterpreted war. I can remember in 1990, a philosopher in Beirut showing me his dining room wall where a machine gun round had detonated. Look at this room, he said, it looks like a pistol shot went off in the middle of an opera.

Lebanons civil war lasted for 15 years. Many of the country's artists fled. But the whole time, Amal Traboulsi kept her gallery doors in Beirut.

Ms. AMAL TRABOULSI (Owner, Epreuve d'Artiste Gallery): I'm Amal Traboulsi, Lebanese, born Lebanon and I only have one passport. Refuse to have another passport. I've been opening my gallery during the first years of the civil war, not knowing that its going to remain for 20 years. And this is a very interesting experience to have a gallery during wartime.

LYDEN: Traboulsi is the co-curator of the show Convergence: New Art from Lebanon Lebanons polyglot past, concentrates on its years of conflict, and also contemplates the future and transcendence of that conflict.

Twenty-nine artists of various ages participated. Giving a tour of the show, Traboulsi stops at a stark work: a black, tan and rust colored piece that looks burned.

Ms. TRABOULSI: There is no painting in this. Its called Fire on Canvas. It just was burning it and it was a way of him to get out of his anger.

LYDEN: This piece is called Fire Number Four, an autobiographical series. It also spoke to Nora Boustany, a former Washington Post journalist who covered Lebanons war.

Ms. NORA BOUSTANY (Former Journalist, The Washington Post): As you can see from this panel, this picture, the walls of our homes look like that - bullet holes, burned, charred. And this was our context. This is what we lived with. We walked to work walking by such walls.

LYDEN: I can first remember hearing Nora on our air in the 1980s taking cover under a table as bullets flew threw through the window. It would be wrong, though, to assume that all of this art is somehow simply an emotional template for war and wreckage.

In the third floor gallery of the Kazten Arts Center, rises a 17-foot high kinetic sculpture by artist Nadim Karam, who has created art for public spaces in Japan, Australia, Korea and Beirut. In his gentle, The Fisherman and Cloud, a seated fisherman casts his line into a cloud hovering above a tiny cluster of skyscrapers. A commentary, he says, on the high rises obliterating so many Eastern cities.

Mr. NADIM KARAM (Artist): The fisherman, if you look at it, it has different elements of landscape that he has carried with him along these years, birds trees, flowers, landscapes from nature that he carries with him, while the cloud which is somehow his thought is may based on abstract lines that are difficult to define. And I think nowadays, we need to blur a little bit the boundaries of ourselves, our countries, in order to understand each other better.

(Soundbite of music, singing and voices)

LYDEN: Near this piece is another sculpture, a huge noisy machine of seemingly a jillion imploded parts by Mario Saba. Saba, who studied in Russia, is looking at all the elements of conflict in his piece he calls The Temple, from his Babylon Syndrome Project. Voices rush through what appears to be the giant spokes of an umbrella. Its inspiration is from Lebanons Mediterranean past and from his grandfathers time, when, he thinks, people knew more about how to live together, especially in his city, the northern port of Tripoli.

Mr. MARIO SABA (Artist): Imagine in one city and all type of Muslim and Jew and the Christians, everybody celebrating each others ceremonies. It was human without knowledge. So we had it all now, knowledge and everything, and then we became more stupid.

LYDEN: Amal Traboulsi, the co-curator, says she sees a big divide between older artists who paint in color and the younger ones who use primarily black and white.

Ms. TRABOULSI: The violence is not only painting a house that is destroyed. The violence is, where are the colors? Where is the joy of life? Wheres the real will to live?

LYDEN: One painting simply shows a boy in black and white, face buried in a book disengaged. Another called "Golgotha" is a hill of a giant pile of shoes.

Lebanons civil war claimed a quarter million dead and wounded and you will find that staggering sense of loss reflected in this show. Sometimes its elaborate - a montage of photos from the 2006 Israeli airstrike is particularly affecting. Sometimes its simple.

Mouna Sehnaoui paints faces emerging from clothes and suitcases.

Ms. MOUNA SEHNAOUI (Artist): The worst thing is opening a closet when somebody has died and smelling - theres always a sort of firm scent. And this is so heartrending. Its like the person dying all over again. This is why I did this painting of the widows on the clothes of their husbands. Because I felt it was a very strong way of bringing home the tragedy of these wasted lives.

LYDEN: But nothing is wasted in this show, which speaks strongly to Lebanons moving out of war and into a future, which while still insecure, seems full of promise.

Convergence: New Art from Lebanon, is at the American Universitys Katzen Arts Center until May 16th. To see some of these works and some of the artists, go to our website, Npr.org.

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