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PHILADELPHIA — Manal Abu-Shaheen moved to the US from Beirut in 2000. At the time, Beirut was undergoing rapid development changes, still recovering from a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The photographer remembers the first McDonald’s opening in 1998. “Before that, most global chains and products were not available,” she wrote in an email. Now she sees many familiar chains and restaurants there, from Dunkin’ Donuts to H&M.
Beirut’s ever-changing landscape is the subject of Abu-Shaheen’s exhibition Beta World City, now on view at Lord Ludd. Through beautifully composed black-and-white photographs and sourced architectural renderings, the artist seeks to create a visual record of Beirut’s contemporary landscape because little formal documentation of the city exists. She likened the city to “a family without a family album,” adding, “I am building my own photographic archive of what Beirut looks like today: a city dominated by billboards.”
In both the architectural pieces and the artist’s photographs, Western companies offer images of an idealized life that is largely at odds with the reality surrounding the advertisements. In “Kate Winslet. Beirut, Lebanon” (2016), a larger-than-life Winslet reclines in a park sporting a Longines watch. In “Ripple. Beirut, Lebanon” (2016), an advertisement featuring a tropical domestic landscape sits at street level in front of what appears to be an apartment complex. Yet the black and white flattens the imagery, making it hard to decipher where the billboard ends and the real world begins. The apartment building itself could easily be an ad: It looks brand new and shows no signs of life.
Though she originally shot in color, after living with the pieces, Abu-Shaheen realized “the color was acting as a barrier from getting to the content of the pictures.” The images carry their own meanings, and the same colors were used in many different billboards, which the artist said made her feel like she was ceding control of her artistic vision.
For the same reason, the architectural renderings are also displayed in black and white. Provided by advertising agencies, these digital pieces clearly show the companies’ aspirational, Eurocentric visions. In “Beirut Render #10” (2017), a thin white woman sits on a lawn by a pool reading a magazine. The computer-generated people in “Beirut Render #3” (2017) also appear to mainly be Caucasian. They are congregating in what looks like a public plaza displaying sand or perhaps some type of ancient ruin. In perhaps the most obvious of the renderings, “Beirut Render #12” (2017), a U.S. $100 bill is being handed from one business-suited white man to another. In the background, Corinthian-style columns sit on an ocean shore to the left, and a massive desert rock sits in the water to the right. Installed on a pillar near the rear of the gallery, the picture is easy to miss — don’t.
The construction boom in Beirut has generated plenty of local criticism, as historic buildings have been razed and public areas nearly decimated. A 2015 article from The Arab Weekly cited increased profits for developers as a major driver of construction, noting that apartment rents in the city have gone up 3.5 to 5.6 percent since 2004. And the number of old buildings has fallen from around 2,000 in 1990 to less than 200 today.
For Abu-Shaheen, having a record of Beirut’s visual history is crucial. “This under-documented place is now occupied by images of a different place and people,” she wrote. Using imagery as their primary communication tool, the companies moving into Beirut overwhelm citizens with an idea of progress that is blatantly Western and capitalistic. How do such images and ideas transform a culture? In “Kate Winslet. Beirut, Lebanon,” a man wearing a Union Jack sweater poses beneath the actress while his friend snaps a picture of him, the two of them standing in front of yet another series of advertisements, this time showing distant locales. Barbed wire lines the top of the ads. Behind the figures is graffiti, rundown buildings, a business with an Arabic store sign. The picture was taken in 2016, and it’s likely that the ads have been updated or the graffiti removed since. This image, as with all the images in this show, provides a record of a city in flux, one in the midst of being overtaken by billboards but still, for now, showing its history.
Beta World City continues at Lord Ludd (306 Market Street, Philadelphia) through May 20.