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Lebanese Art Community Joins Unprecedented Protests

As artists discuss the role of contemporary art in times of revolution and rally on the streets, 20 leading arts organizations issued a statement of solidarity with protesters across Lebanon.

Protesters in downtown Beirut on Wednesday, October 23, 2019 (all photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

BEIRUT — As protests rage across Lebanon, the country’s contemporary art community debates how to respond to cries for non-sectarian unity. In a country organized by religion, this possibility is already having a transformative effect on society.  The latest wave of protests began after the government announced that it planned new taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and online phone calls, including on services like WhatsApp. That news in a country where internet and phone service is already very expensive, the economy has been sluggish for decades, and corruption is seen as increasing, appeared to have been the last straw for many. According to Transparency International, an NGO based in Berlin, Lebanon is ranked 138th out of 180 countries in terms of corruption.

When the protests started on Thursday, October 17, Beirut’s art community had convened for the biannual Home Works event organized by one of the country’s leading arts nonprofits, Ashkal Alwan. On Monday, October 20, the organization announced that it was indefinitely postponing the gathering, sending out an announcement by email and on its website that read in part:

Artistic and cultural institutions and initiatives are in no way isolated from broader civic, political, economic, and ideological contexts, but rather shaped as a result of and in response to historical events and their repercussions. This edition of Home Works initially called on participants to partake in acts of collective world-building, suggesting pathways to re-imagine social relations as they currently stand. Then, it seemed pertinent to echo the region’s manyfold attempts at dismantling inherited structures of the past and designing alternative blueprints for the future, from Sudan to Syria, and from Algeria to Iraq. Today, it is our turn.

Curators and art critics like Nat Muller, who were in Lebanon in anticipation of the event, were understanding of the announcement. Muller, who has contributed to Hyperallergic in the past, explained:

While I feel for all the hard work Christine Tohmé and her team at AshkalAlwan have invested in this very ambitious edition of Home Works, and was very much looking forward to it, no artistic event can compete with the momentous way these protests have developed. […] In a way, the imaginaries Home Works sets out to interrogate are being played out real time in the streets of Lebanon. I fully support their decision to suspend Home Works and stand in full solidarity with the Lebanese people.

Protesters in Riad al-Solh Square on Thursday, October 24, 2019.

Respected for its role as a regional hub of ideas and conversation, Home Works has helped incubate and innovate various projects throughout the years, but Tohmé says the realities facing the event have always been difficult. “This is far from being the first time Home Works Forum and its programs have been disrupted, modified, or postponed due to political events,” she told Hyperallergic. She explains:

The first edition of the forum opened in early April 2002 and coincided with the outbreak of the Second Intifida in Palestine. The second edition of the forum opened in late October 2003 after a six-month delay due to the US invasion of Iraq. The third edition of the forum also opened after a six-month delay due to the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. The fourth edition of the forum, which took place in 2008, was disrupted by violent street battles that shook Beirut on May 7 and which had opposed Hezbollah and Future Movement militiamen. The fifth edition of the forum was delayed due to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruptions, which caused massive air travel disruption. Finally, on 12 November 2015, the eve of the launch of the seventh edition of the forum, two suicide bombers detonated explosives in Bourj el-Barajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut, killing more than 43 civilians; a day later, the Paris attacks occurred as well. We’ve become accustomed political instabilities inviting themselves to unfold during or right before the forum, and they’re now inherently intertwined with Ashkal Alwan’s own history as an institution. In 2005, in my preface to the Home Works 3 catalogue, I had written: ‘At this point, the Home Works Forum has (we think) settled into a regular schedule of regular disruption.’

She sees the “unprecedented wave of protests” as part of a “mass rejection of the violent neoliberal reforms put in place by the country’s postwar oligarchs,” saying these political elites “have dispossessed and impoverished citizens and non-citizens of Lebanon for the past decades.”

Since the protests began last week, some of the gatherings, like the one in downtown Beirut, have become 24-hour events that include concurrent concerts, rallies, prayers, lectures, raves, and everything in between.

Artist Gregory Buchakjian, who is the director of the School of Visual Arts at the Académie libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), — one of the country’s leading art schools — heralded the strong presence of women at the protests, the messages of social justice, and the dancing in the streets, which he says reminds him of the revolutionary air of France in May 1968. “This is very new considering that you have a mix of people from various social classes, including lower classes, who are often less open minded [about some of the social issues being discussed] and more under the domination of confessional power and political parties,” he told Hyperallergic. He was completely understanding of Home Works’s postponement. He and other artists have been organizing an independent group called Atelier insurrectionnels (Insurgency Workshops) which he hopes will respond to the events on the streets.

American University of Beirut professor Charbel Nahas speaking to a crowd on Thursday, October 24, 2019, as part of the “Eggcupation.”

Another open-air gathering of Lebanese artists earlier this week led to debates about arts role in the protests, but the conversation seemed to veer off course when there weren’t basic agreements about what artists should do during such a crisis. Participants discussed events in Hong Kong, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere, demonstrating that the global wave of protest continues to inform one another. A group of self-described academics, artists, teachers, students, and intellectual workers have also organized an occupation of the “Egg,” as its commonly known, near the downtown protests. The theater space has stood unused since the start of the Lebanese Civil War. Protesters broke down the gates of the site to create a “common space to hold political debates, proposals for direct action, teach-ins” and other activities. For instance, on Thursday, October 24, American University of Beirut professor Charbel Nahas, who some in attendance were affectionately calling “Lebanon’s Bernie,” gave a lecture on the “Crisis of Capitalism,” which was followed by a Q&A.

A view of the “Egg,” which is at the edge of the main protest area in downtown Beirut.

Today, 20 leading Lebanese arts organizations issued a statement of solidarity after a meeting a few days ago. It explains that they will allow their staff and members to take part in the daily protests, while maintaining “minimum necessary administrative and basic operations.” The statement highlights that, “Arts and Culture are an integral part of every society, and the expanded space of creative and critical thought is imperative in times of upheaval. The strike is therefore not a withdrawal of the arts and culture from this moment, but rather a suspension of ‘business as usual.'”

Now, with the protests entering a second week, protesters wonder about the impact of the mass disobedience, which has shut down most schools, some businesses, and occasionally main roads. While the future of this revolutionary activity on the streets is unknown, most agree that what is happening has never occurred before in Lebanon.

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