Culture

Bridging cultural borders at Photomed

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EIRUT: At Wednesday’s news conference announcing the launch of the second edition of the Lebanese iteration of French annual photography festival Photomed, much was made of Beirut’s vibrant cultural scene.

Art institutions and cultural festivals continue to flourish, even as “terrorists tap at the windows and war knocks at the door,” as Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon poetically put it.

Lebanon is the most amazing place

By the time Gordon Campbell Gray, president of the chain of hotels whose Beirut branch hosted the late morning media circus, took control of the mic, half an hour of speeches had left some of the audience with eyes glazed – or in one case closed.

“Lebanon is the most amazing place,” Campbell Gray pronounced, gesturing to the front row. All eyes swiveled to the empty seat beside Culture Minister Raymond Areiji.

“The Tourism Minister has left,” the hotelier noted anticlimactically, “but the only job I’d rather have than my own is the Minister of Tourism for Lebanon because despite everything it should be the easiest job, because it’s such a fabulous country.”

Barbara Luisi, "Night on the Sea," Montauk. (Photos courtesy of Photomed)
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Fabulous or not, Lebanon’s indomitable cultural scene is set to perk up after the Christmas lull, thanks to Photomed’s comprehensive program of solo and group exhibitions, running consecutively at 10 venues across Beirut.

Last year, the festival made its Beirut debut, after Lebanon was selected as the guest of honor at the 2013 edition in Sanary-sur-Mer. The venture was deemed successful and organizers decided to make Photomed Beirut an annual fixture. This month sees selected exhibitions from the last edition of the festival, which took place in France in May 2014, restaged for local audiences.

This year’s guest of honor is Italy. The star of the program is veteran Italian photographer Mimmo Jodice. A solo exhibition of his work, entitled “Mediterraneo,” is running at the Byblos Bank headquarters in Ashrafieh, featuring moody black-and-white shots of Italy’s ancient Greek and Roman heritage.

Mimmo Jodice, "Athena," 1993. (Photos courtesy of Photomed)
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Deceptively simple, Jodice’s images capture close-ups of ancient statuary. The statues’ surfaces are pockmarked by weather, their noses broken off. Sections of their skulls have long since been smashed away by hostile natural or human forces. Deeply atmospheric, his beautifully lit images encourage an emotional link with the ancient objects he captures, infusing them with new life.

A wider selection of Italian photography can be found over at the Beirut Souks’ Beige Gallery, where two group exhibitions are curated by Alessandra Mauro. In “Dreams and Visions,” Silvia Camporesi, Simona Ghizzoni and Beatrice Pediconi communicate their visions of Italy through images steeped in memory and personal history. “Daily Scenes” features photographs by Massimo Siragusa and video works by Fabrizio Bellomo, dwelling on Italy’s ancient and contemporary urban centers.

Bernard Plossu, "Paysage en Chantier," Marettimo, Italy. (Photos courtesy of Photomed)
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Over at the French Institute, Patrice Terraz and Bernard Plossu are representing the Gauls. Terraz’s artfully shot documentary series captures the grim realities of life for sailors marooned aboard merchant ships abandoned in various Mediterranean ports, without prospect of payment or further work. Plosso’s photographs take viewers on a tour of the rugged Aeolian islands of the Italian coast, shot in moody black-and-white.

Japanese photographer Keiichi Tahara is exhibiting a series of dramatic, colorful photographs focusing on the baroque cherubs found in Croatian and Serbian churches at the Beirut Souks’ Information Center, alongside work by a pair of Spanish photographers, Angel Albarran and Anna Cabrera. The duo work together to produce stunningly detailed shots that seek to find the eternal within the minuscule – William Blake’s world in a grain of sand.

Also exhibiting in the Beirut Souks, at the Black Gallery, is Beirut-based Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui. Her series of colorful, intimate portraits of rural Moroccan people, shot against an identical black backdrop, explores the politics of representation while seeing to break away from Orientalist viewpoints.

At the nearby Glorietta Gallery, New York-based German photographer Barbara Luisi is showing large-format seascapes. Shot at night, the surface of the water she captures is lit only by the ethereal glow of the moon, the sky suffused with deep blues, purples and inky black.

Paolo Verzone, "Naval School," France. (Photos courtesy of Photomed)
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At the SV Gallery in Saifi Village, Paris-based Italian photographer Paolo Verzone casts light on the lives of male and female military cadets at academies in numerous different Mediterranean countries. Allowing his subjects to select the location of their portraits and pose as they saw fit, Verzone not only provides a glimpse into life behind the closed doors of military academies but also into the mindset of the young cadets who train there.

At the 169 Gallery nearby, Beirut’s Oriental Library is opening up its archives to the public in two exhibitions featuring photographs from the 19th and early 20th century, “Oriental Portraits” and “Voyages to the East.” The former consists of a selection of the library’s collection of 70,000 portraits shot by Jesuits residing in the Middle East. The latter is made up of handtinted prints by itinerant journalist Charles Lallemand, who set out to capture images of the rapidly disappearing national costumes in today’s Syria and Lebanon during the early 1860s.

STATION in Jisr al-Wati is hosting three simultaneous exhibitions. Algerian photographer Arslane Bestaoui’s work focuses on the single, divorced or widowed women of Sidi El Houari in Oran, who live alone in poverty and serve as the sole carers for their children.

Arslane Bestaoui, "Femme sur la terrasse commune Sidi El Houari," Oran, Algeria, 2013. (Photos courtesy of Photomed)
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Lebanese photographer Serge Najjar, who won the Photomed competition at last year’s event, is exhibiting a selection of his beautifully framed urban landscapes, which transform everyday infrastructure into semiabstract geometric patterns.

Meanwhile, a change of pace comes in the form of a selection of video art, part of the collection of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie.

Finally, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism is putting on an exhibition at Le Gray, entitled “Beirut in Motion.” A nostalgic look at the country’s much-touted “Golden Age,” the photographs capture daily life in Beirut in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Photomed runs at multiple venues across Beirut until Feb. 11. For more information, please visit www.photomedliban.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 22, 2015, on page 12.

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