16 Formidable Lebanese Photographers in an Abbey

5 September, 2022
Nas­ri Sayegh’s “Stela(s),” case study from “Exquis­ite Land­scapes — Seen Things,” 2020, Inkjet print (pho­to cour­tesy Nas­ri Sayegh).

 

100 miles north of Paris in the town of Jumièges, an art gallery is high­light­ing con­tem­po­rary Lebanese pho­tog­ra­phy. Titled “Au bord du monde, vivent nos ver­tiges” or “Our Ver­ti­go Resides at the Edge of the World,” the show fea­tures the work of 16 artists at the Abbaye de Jumièges, a French her­itage site in the heart of the Nor­mandy coun­try­side. Through Novem­ber 6, 2022.

 

Nada Ghosn

 

A lit­tle more than 100 miles from Paris, in the Seine val­ley, is an ancient Bene­dic­tine abbey. A sym­bol of Car­olin­gian monar­chism and one of the key places of Romanesque art, it was found­ed in 654 by Saint Philib­ert, son of a Frank­ish count of Vas­co­nia, in Jumièges, in a loop of the Seine, thanks to a dona­tion from Clo­vis II. It is the ear­li­est and the largest of the great Nor­man abbeys.

Fol­low­ing its found­ing, Jumièges quick­ly became one of the most impor­tant lit­er­ary cen­ters of the region, and then a place of exile for the ene­mies of the Car­olin­gian dynasty. The Abbey de Jumièges was burned and plun­dered dur­ing the Viking inva­sions in the ninth cen­tu­ry, but the Romanesque choir of the great abbey church would be rebuilt in Goth­ic style in the 13th. With the Nor­man takeover of the Church of Eng­land, the com­mu­ni­ty expe­ri­enced a peri­od of dynamism and pros­per­i­ty. Today, almost half of the 400 man­u­scripts in the library date from that peri­od. Dur­ing the Wars of Reli­gion, the Abbey was sacked again and then, with the French Rev­o­lu­tion, sold and part­ly demol­ished. It was only in the 19th cen­tu­ry that this mon­u­ment was refur­bished by the may­or of Jumièges. The Abbey attained new­found fame dur­ing the Roman­tic Move­ment, thanks to Vic­tor Hugo and the his­to­ri­an Robert de Lasteyrie, who described it as “one of the most admirable ruins in France.” In 1947, the Abbey of Jumièges became the prop­er­ty of France, and then of the Depart­ment of Seine-Mar­itime in 2007.

To per­pet­u­ate the life of this her­itage site, where dialec­tics and for­eign lan­guages were once taught, the Depart­ment holds an annu­al cul­tur­al pro­gram, includ­ing exhi­bi­tions of pho­tographs, in which the work of mas­ters such as Josef Koudel­ka and Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son have been fea­tured. The eco­nom­ic and social cri­sis that Lebanon has been going through, par­tic­u­lar­ly since the explo­sion of the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, led the Depart­ment to des­ig­nate 2022 as the year of France and Lebanon in Nor­mandy. As part of the fes­tiv­i­ties, Lau­re d’Hauteville was brought in to orga­nize an exhi­bi­tion on con­tem­po­rary Lebanese photography.

 

A place full of meaning

Lau­re d’Hauteville (pho­to cour­tesy Irène de Rosen).

Lau­re d’Hauteville has been in con­tact with Lebanon from child­hood, as her par­ents and grand­par­ents would host Lebanese vis­i­tors at their house in Paris dur­ing the civ­il war (1975–1990). After study­ing art, she real­ized her dream and went to work in Lebanon in edu­ca­tion in 1991, then became an artis­tic advi­sor at a bank and final­ly a cul­tur­al jour­nal­ist. She launched ARTUEL, the first art fair in the Mid­dle East, in Beirut, in 1998, which ran until 2005. D’Hauteville also began bring­ing Arab artists to France for annu­al exhi­bi­tions. In 2005, fol­low­ing the mur­der of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s for­mer prime min­is­ter, she returned to France and stud­ied at the Boule school. She worked for Art Paris and brought it to Abu Dhabi in 2007 and 2008, at the same time as the instal­la­tion of the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi project. In 2009, she returned to Lebanon with her hus­band, Guil­laume Taslé d’Héliand, where in 2010 she found­ed the Beirut Art Fair, ded­i­cat­ed to Mid­dle East­ern art, which ran until 2019. After that year’s Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, she returned to Paris, and fol­low­ing the Beirut port explo­sion on August 4, 2020, she cre­at­ed MENART FAIR in Paris.

“When the Depart­ment of Seine-Mar­itime called me, I imme­di­ate­ly thought of work­ing with a cura­tor in Lebanon, Clé­mence Cot­tard Hachem, his­to­ri­an of ancient, mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary pho­tog­ra­phy. I want­ed an exhi­bi­tion that would be a way to help peo­ple under­stand what the Lebanese in Lebanon are expe­ri­enc­ing on a dai­ly basis. It is impor­tant that the Euro­pean pub­lic be trans­port­ed in a dizzy­ing state to com­pre­hend what is going on, and also to see the great qual­i­ty of the artists,” d’Hauteville said in an inter­view with The Markaz Review.

“A vis­it to the Abbey and Jumièges, with its his­to­ry and envi­ron­ment,” she con­tin­ued, “inspired our first artis­tic selec­tions. In a poet­ic and polit­i­cal way, in a total­ly dif­fer­ent con­text, a pris­tine and his­tor­i­cal­ly charged place, ‘Our Ver­ti­go Resides at the Edge of the World’ found its place.”

When we enter the abbey, we find our­selves in the penum­bra. There begins our ini­tia­to­ry jour­ney, chal­lenged by the pho­tos, the stat­uettes, the calm of the abbey. “It was nec­es­sary to give mean­ing to the exhi­bi­tion in rela­tion to the abbot’s res­i­dence,” said d’Hauteville. “How to cre­ate a dia­logue between the pho­tographs and the Goth­ic and lap­idary stat­uettes present in the place, to ren­der an almost mys­te­ri­ous side between the place and our selec­tions, as if the one and the oth­er com­ple­ment­ed each other.”

Joan­na Andraos’ pho­tos and the stat­ues of the abbey house (@Gregory Buchakjian).

The exhi­bi­tion ques­tions the for­mats of pho­tog­ra­phy itself in the face of the new visu­al writ­ing that we are see­ing from artists young and old. “It was impor­tant to exhib­it dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of pho­tog­ra­phers, such as Laeti­tia el Hakim and Tarek Had­dad, up to the big stars like Joana Had­jit­o­mas and Khalil Jor­eige, to show how today, thanks to them, we can talk about pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices in Lebanon,” said d’Hauteville.

The artists ques­tion sculp­tur­al writ­ing and its stag­ing in space, thus push­ing the lim­its of more clas­si­cal doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy. Some pieces speak of beau­ty and soft­ness, oth­ers of cru­el­ty, chaos, and vio­lence. Through­out the exhi­bi­tion, the view­er comes face to face with Lebanon’s ambiva­lent present. The exhi­bi­tion does not seek to give answers, but to ques­tion how cre­ativ­i­ty and cul­ture can be cen­tral to liv­ing in a con­text of col­lapse, how we rep­re­sent what hap­pens to the Lebanese, how we tell sto­ries, how we can sub­li­mate what hap­pens into art.

 

Laeti­tia Hakim & Tarek Had­dad, “A Stretch of Water,” 2021 (laser print on jer­sey cot­ton, stretched and mount­ed, 280 x 54.5 cm, (pho­to Laeti­tia Hakim & Tarek Haddad).

Water as a start­ing point

Water is the main focus of the exhi­bi­tion since the abbey is locat­ed in the loops of the Seine. The first part, “Liq­uid Geo­gra­phies,” deals with this ele­ment in rela­tion to the Lebanese land­scape. Water as Lebanon’s great wealth serves as a metaphor for a float­ing ter­ri­to­ry, which crys­tal­lizes and evaporates.

“The Riv­er” by Lara Tabet (2018), opens the tour, above the tomb of the Enervés de Jumièges. Accord­ing to leg­end, the two sons of Clo­vis II were pun­ished by being ener­vat­ed, i.e., their mus­cle ten­dons were burned so that they could not move. The two princes were then placed on a raft with­out an oar or a rud­der, and left to drift, at the mer­cy of the waves of the Seine, in the icy immen­si­ty, where the sky and the water merge, to end up strand­ed in Jumièges, where a monk from the abbey took them in and cared for them.

Lara Tabet and Les énervés de Jumièges, detail (pho­to Gre­go­ry Buchakjian).

“Lara’s work, which ana­lyzes the bac­te­ria in the riv­er of Beirut, made per­fect sense… We built all our selec­tions accord­ing to the place, which is full of stone sculp­tures recall­ing the his­to­ry of the monastery, such as the head of William the Con­queror or the funer­al slab of Agnès Sorel, the monks of the abbey car­ry­ing the key to par­adise, and oth­ers bring­ing a new mean­ing to the works. The vis­i­tor comes out of it shak­en, touched, in full ver­ti­go,” said the curator.

 

Between past and present

The sec­ond part, “Passerelles tem­porelles,” deals with what has hap­pened in the last 20 years, par­tic­u­lar­ly the trou­bled rela­tion­ship between time and mem­o­ry in Lebanon. “Agen­da 1979,”a video, is par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing because of its aes­thet­ics, its dis­turb­ing music, the very poet­ic text of Valérie Cachard, with the voice of Gre­go­ry Buchakjian in the back­ground, as he reads the con­tents of a diary dat­ing from 1979 found in the rub­ble of an aban­doned house in Beirut. An instruc­tion man­u­al for the man­u­fac­ture of mines aimed at destroy­ing a coun­try, it belonged to a for­mer Lebanese mili­tia­man who left for the Sovi­et Union.

At the begin­ning of the video, Cachard lists the numer­ous attacks record­ed by gov­ern­ments around the world. Even with­out any men­tion of August 4, 2020, every­thing cir­cles back to this crime, and to the care­less­ness, even the absolute igno­rance of the Lebanese state.

 

 

In an inter­view with TMR, Buchakjian, an art his­to­ri­an teach­ing at the Lebanese Acad­e­my of Fine Arts (ALBA), recalled, “Valerie and I began our col­lab­o­ra­tion on aban­doned habi­tats more than 10 years ago, as part of my the­sis on the sub­ject. We vis­it­ed and took pic­tures in a build­ing in Ain Mreis­sé. It was she who ini­ti­at­ed the col­lec­tion of archival doc­u­ments. When we real­ized the project in its artis­tic form, she edit­ed the book Aban­doned Habi­tats of which she wrote the preface.”

Excerpts from the book Aban­doned Dwellings (pho­to Gré­go­ry Buchakjian).

For an exhi­bi­tion at the Sur­sock Muse­um in Beirut, the two artists made a video on aban­doned habi­tats using archives, a kind of filmed per­for­mance where they manip­u­late, describe, and spread out doc­u­ments and found objects on the floor of a room. “Agen­da 79” was pro­duced at the invi­ta­tion of the Opéra nation­al du Rhin for the Arsmon­do Fes­ti­val. “Since it was an online event, and orig­i­nal­ly a music fes­ti­val, I switched to a sound form and con­tact­ed Valerie to sug­gest mak­ing a new video,” Buchakjian said. 

Since the offi­cial end of the civ­il war in 1990, archives have played a very impor­tant role in the work of Lebanese artists. This ranges from the cre­ation of insti­tu­tions such as the Arab Image Foun­da­tion to the real­iza­tion of artis­tic projects such as Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, and includes the works of Joan­na Had­jithomas and Khalil Jor­eige, Akram Zaatari and many oth­ers. “The archive is impor­tant because after the war there was a need to write a his­to­ry, as insti­tu­tions had not played this role. Con­tem­po­rary artists have tak­en this place that was to be tak­en,” explained Buchakjian.

Tanya Tra­boul­si, Khalil Jor­eige & Joana Had­jit­o­mas (pho­to Gre­go­ry Buchakjian).

“I think the prob­lem is that this war has nev­er been resolved, one could even say that it is not over, even if it has changed form. There was no real con­clu­sion like in the Sec­ond World War. The polit­i­cal class is the same, the prob­lems that were at the ori­gin are still there. There was nev­er a real solu­tion, as evi­denced by the cur­rent state of the coun­try,” Buchakjian lamented.

“Agen­da 79” throws the war back in our faces. There is a very strong rela­tion­ship between the past of the 1970s, the Pales­tin­ian pres­ence in Lebanon, the result­ing war, and the present, i.e., the explo­sion of August 4, which was caused by improp­er­ly stored ammo­ni­um nitrate. “The log­ic of war has not been extin­guished; the sight of the grain silo burn­ing con­tin­u­ous­ly reminds us of this. To see this build­ing burn­ing down is like being con­sumed. It’s absolute­ly pathet­ic,” declared Buchakjian.

 

 

 

Back­ground: Jack Dabaghi­an’s “The Death of the Cedar,” 2021 from the series “Sen­tinels — Trip­tych,” inkjet prints from wet col­lo­di­on tin­type pos­i­tives; front Gilbert Hage from “Touf­i­can Zom­bies,” 2021, inkjet print (pho­to Gre­go­ry Buchakjian).

Between real­i­ty and imagination

The last part, “Songs of Visions,” projects the view­er into the future in a mar­velous and tor­ment­ed way, show­ing the aes­thet­ics of chaos and cru­el­ty, an almost shaman­ic vision that the artists project through their prac­tices. Some works deal with pho­to­graph­ic mate­r­i­al, oth­ers tend towards abstrac­tion. “Songs of Vision” is of the son­ic order, of the pho­to­graph­ic musi­cal mat­ter. The voic­es car­ry a desire or a fear, as in Gilbert Hage’s work on zom­bies, or in Jack Dabaghi­an’s pho­to­graph­ic trip­tych “Death of the Cedar.”

In Nas­ri Sayegh and Car­o­line Tabet’s pho­tog­ra­phy, mate­r­i­al the image becomes a metaphor of the psy­che. Inter­viewed for TMR, Tabet explained: “My works are part of the con­ti­nu­ity of the research I have been doing for years on the pho­to­graph­ic ele­ment, an exper­i­men­tal and man­u­al work done with Polaroids.” The trig­ger for the series “Inner Lives – Ante­ri­or” (2020) was the first few weeks of con­fine­ment. “At the time, I was liv­ing in the Gem­mayze neigh­bor­hood. I had a bal­cony over­look­ing a typ­i­cal view of Beirut’s urban fab­ric, with build­ings from dif­fer­ent eras and old hous­es with gar­dens. After the intense months of the thawra (“rev­o­lu­tion”), when the neigh­bor­hood was in tur­moil, the silence and being stuck at home made me need to process direct­ly what I saw with­out need­ing to go through a printer.”

“I took Polaroids from my bal­cony, and then immersed them in hot water with vine­gar to cre­ate a detach­ment. Images have two natures: the pho­to­graph­ic emul­sion of the Polaroid with what was pho­tographed, and what is hid­den, which becomes like land­scapes of abstrac­tion. These detach­ments or ‘antecedents’ are part of every­thing that is hid­den from view. I want­ed to par­al­lel these two natures to talk about the idea of inte­ri­or­i­ty: the inte­ri­or of our images that is hid­den, but also the obser­va­tion of a land­scape from the inside — as soon as we were con­fined — at a moment of float­ing in the his­to­ry of Lebanon.”

Car­o­line Tabet (From the Series: Inner Lives — Pre­vi­ous Lives, 2020 / Inkjet print) © Car­o­line Tabet

 

The explo­sion of the port fol­lowed, with all its con­se­quences and col­lec­tive trau­ma. Liv­ing a few hun­dred meters from the port, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er expe­ri­enced the event from her home, which trans­formed in a flash what was around her into a chaot­ic vision. “This series made sense,” she explained, “because it spoke of some­thing quite dif­fi­cult to inscribe in time, an image that is embod­ied to dis­ap­pear, like this land­scape weak­ened by a dis­as­ter. All the prob­lems of the vis­i­ble and the invis­i­ble, of the real and the imag­i­nary, take on dimen­sions that are all the more pal­pa­ble in the times we live in. This opens infi­nite fields of ques­tion­ing and puts us in front of the uncer­tain­ty of the things which sur­round us, of the real­i­ties which we live in our flesh. There is a whole part of imag­i­na­tion which escapes us. What is the real impact of the imag­i­nary on our dai­ly life? If we did­n’t have an escape through dreams, life would be even more dif­fi­cult to absorb.”

Tabet con­clud­ed: “To con­tin­ue to cre­ate in the con­di­tions we know is becom­ing increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult at all lev­els. It takes a lot of ener­gy to get things done. The des­per­a­tion of the peo­ple is reflect­ed in all ram­i­fi­ca­tions. In spite of every­thing, peo­ple are doing their best, try­ing to invest in com­mon projects to keep some­thing alive in a ran­sacked land.”

 

BeirutLebanese civil warLebanese photographyLebanese uprisingLebanon

Nada Ghosn is a Paris-based writer who has lived in the Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, where she has worked for the press and diverse cultural institutions. These days she works as a freelance translator and journalist, having translated several essays, art books, novels, film scripts, plays, and collections of short stories and poetry from Arabic into French. She regularly covers culture and society for such publications as an-Nahar, Grazia and Diptyk, and participates in art projects, conferences and performances.

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