Sculpting the bones of old Beirut

BEIRUT: The distinctive facade of the Barakat Building, otherwise known as Yellow House, is dwarfed by the featureless, towering skyscrapers that crowd its adjacent lots, as though waiting to engulf it.

The form in question isn’t the iconic structure in Sodeco, draped in netting and midway through a restoration project intended to transform it into a museum, but a sculpture by Lebanese artist Samar Mogharbel.

The Yellow House is one of 13 historic houses around Beirut recreated in clay for the solo exhibition “Without Traces,” currently on show at Hamra’s Agial Art Gallery.

The sculpture is exhibited as part of an installation layout that positions each of the small works against a backdrop of featureless black oblongs, representing the tower blocks that are gradually devouring Beirut’s pre-Civil War urban fabric.

The Barakat Building is something of a Beirut landmark, so its distinctive, curved facade is instantly recognizable in Mogharbel’s ceramic sculpture.

The artist isn’t primarily interested in replicating famous landmarks, however – in replication at all, in fact. Her sculptures aren’t devised as scale models of the buildings that inspire them, but as a means of capturing the diverse unique features of structures that are often overlooked.

Mogharbel explains that she works from a photograph of each building, inventing the details she is unable to verify.

“I just imagine – maybe it’s like this, maybe it’s like that,” she says. “I work on the composition. For example, I make an opening here, I add a staircase here.”

What primarily interests her, she elaborates, is the sculptural composition – the insets and protrusions and the patterns of light and shadow they create – as well as the texture of the clay.

Each of Mogharbel’s sculptures is invitingly tactile. Areas sanded to a silky smooth finish form a stark contrast with the jagged edges of broken arches or the pockmarked surface of walls damaged by ordnance during the Civil War. Subtle use of colored glazes and slips creates variegated surfaces that evoke the patchy exteriors of houses whose paint has faded, cracked and peeled.

“The finishing, the way it’s done is what’s interesting ... It’s not about making [a model],” she says. “It’s about texture – the clay itself.”

The series began with a model of the artist’s family house, which was razed and replaced with a new building. A modest two-story house with a spacious porch, it was exceptional only for the memories it housed.

Mogharbel’s uncle, who lived on the upper floor, owned around 20 pairs of shoes, she recalls, which he used to polish lovingly and lay out in a line along the edge of the slanting roof that covered the front porch. As a child, she used to sneak into his shed and play with his tools, kindling a passion for working with her hands that has led to a career spanning five decades.

“I started with this house and then I went around and I saw all these buildings disappearing, one after the other,” she says.

“We don’t notice that they’re disappearing. We only notice them when they’re gone – ‘What house was there?’ We pass by them every day but we don’t see them.”

The exhibition layout seeks to invert the reality of contemporary buildings eclipsing the historic buildings they replace. In “Without Traces” Beirut’s old houses are captured in all their decrepit beauty, the skyscrapers replaced with featureless shapes.

“Because everything’s going to go, I just decided that I want to keep them,” Mogharbel adds. “The subject of all my work is, not memory, but marking time.”

Often, she says, the owners of old houses sell the property to developers because they can’t afford the upkeep any longer.

“I don’t have an answer to this,” she says. “What should be done? I don’t know.”

She gestures at her sculptures, evidence of houses that no longer exist. “We don’t have the real thing but we can imagine we are little people living inside,” she laughs, “because we are little in the universe.”

One piece, modeled on an old house in Hamra, was created after Mogharbel became fascinated by the usual shape of the walls, which form a zigzag. She was unable to go inside or to access the back of the building to see how it was laid out, so she invented a structure that seemed to fit with the unusual facade.

“I don’t care about it being a Lebanese design,” she says. “These are houses for the people, for simple people. I don’t really look for the [traditional] block. Sometimes you have a block and nothing really interesting is happening. It’s a Lebanese house. It has the arcade – OK. But for example this one in Hamra with the zigzag walls was very interesting to make.”

Sculpted in shades of patchy blue and white, the ancient-looking structure is finished with torn and faded posters bearing the faces of prominent local politicians. Embedded in the very fabric of the sculpture, these images evoke a sense of history beyond the material, seeming to imply that the city’s sectarian-political past is inscribed in its architecture as surely as the physical traces of war.

Mogharbel pays great attention to detail. Shutters hang askew on ancient windows, staircases in the interior of the building slant away from viewers and continue unseen toward them between floors, discernible only by the touch of a finger.

The clay structures bear traces of the firing process – some walls slightly warped by fire, others betraying hairline cracks. These “imperfections” only compound the overall effect, amplifying the structures’ precarious fragility.

Samar Mogharbel’s “Without Traces” is on show at Agial Art Gallery until Feb. 28. For more information, please call 01-345-213.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 23, 2015, on page 11.




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