Jack Seikaly, “Freedom, October 28, 2019″ (all images courtesy Middle East Institute)

With Lebanon Then and Now: Photography from 2006 to 2020, the Middle East Institute’s Art Gallery presents selections from two previous shows, curated by Chantale Fahmi. Originally a physical exhibition, this show has been reimagined as a virtual experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic, letting visitors browse its high-res photographs and film at their leisure. Produced in cooperation with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and the Beirut Museum of Art, USA, and organized with the Beirut Center of Photography and the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon, it brings together images from the exhibitions Lebanon: Between Reality and Fiction (2019) and Revolt (2019-2020)

Dalia Khamissy, “The Missing of Lebanon — Aida”
Dalia Khamissy, “The Missing of Lebanon — Aidalmm Ahmad”

Between Reality and Fiction, curated by Hanna Boghanim, featured works by 19 photographers, artists, and filmmakers about the Lebanese Civil War. The war remains a focus of much contention, with many of its unresolved conflicts continuing to cause political unrest in the country. Especially piercing are portraits in Dalia Khamissy’s series “The Missing of Lebanon” (2010-in progress), highlighting women posing with pictures of their missing family members (to this day, an estimated 17,000 people remain unaccounted for from the war). The series illuminates the plight of these families who have been demanding accountability and answers. Maria Kassab’s surreal digital collage series The Shipwreck (2018) is themed around the sea, stitching pictures of the Mediterranean into empty living spaces. These pieces explore the pain of separation and loss due to war. 

Maria Kassab, “The Shipwreck”
Maria Kassab, “The Shipwreck”

Revolt, curated by Chantale Fahmi, was organized by the BCP and APEAL in response to the protests that erupted in Lebanon in October 2019. The exhibition was mounted in downtown Beirut around “The Egg,” a movie theater whose construction was halted by the civil war. Since then, it has been unoccupied, a ghost and a skeleton, until it was reclaimed by the protesters, serving as their headquarters and becoming a symbol of their movement. The billboard-sized images from 11 photographers captured the intensity of the protests. Documentary photographers played a crucial role in the demonstrations, uniting people of all sects against political corruption. One of the most striking is Jack Seikaly’s “Freedom, October 28, 2019,” taken on the 12th day of the uprising, depicting a young woman skateboarding down a highway past a student studying. Jana Khoury’s “Witness, October 18, 2019” shows jubilant young people standing on top of The Egg. 

Jana Khoury, “Witness, October 18, 2019”
Omar Sfeir, “The Lovers in Times of Revolution”

By juxtaposing these two exhibitions, Fahmi grants insight into Lebanon’s current crisis, linking it to the fallout of the civil war. But not everything is morbid. Amongst the destruction and despair are moments of beauty that are easy to overlook. Omar Sfeir’s “The Lovers in Times of Revolution,” positioned on the introductory panel, is a token of defiance and unyielding youthful spirit. An anonymous couple embraces and kisses through the Lebanese flag, which covers their entire heads, in a nod to René Magritte’s “The Lovers” (1928). The show brings two generations of artists into a dialogue, revealing parallels across decades. The wide array of subjects in Lebanon Then and Now, from the role of women in the revolution to the importance of memory and history, express a common desire: the pursuit of a better tomorrow, or ultimately, an escape.

Lebanon: Then and Now continues online through September 25 via the Middle East Institute (1763 N St. NW, Washington DC).

Sahar Khraibani is a writer, editor, and artist from Beirut, based in New York. She is interested in the intersection between language, visual production, and geopolitics. Her writing and work have also...