BEIRUT: Feminist art theory and practice has fractured, split and turned against itself so many times since the heyday of "the movement" in the 1970s, when the female body and feminine imagery reigned supreme, that it is perhaps only fitting that the most compelling work in the girl-power group show "Shu Tabkha, Ya Mara?" ("What's Cooking, Woman?") takes as its subject not women at all but men.
Randa Mirza's diminutive, digital black-and-white photographs depict young men and boys jumping off the rocks in Raouche, on the coast of Ras Beirut. Each shot exhilarates with the thrill of flung bodies, taut musculature, sea and sweat. Mirza's camera lingers on the brink between her young divers' fear and fearlessness.
Yet as charged with raw adrenaline as her photographs are, her sun-kissed Adonises also embody a lurking paradox - the weather-worn timelessness of Beirut, where rock diving remains a leisurely sport for one generation after another, twinned to the timeliness of the city's contemporary circumstances, reflecting socioeconomic conditions such as cleaving class divisions, stark political indifference to the lower rungs of the economic ladder and creeping unemployment, which leaves far too many young men in Lebanon without work, money or adequate means of empowerment.
Mirza, 27, was born in Beirut and works as a photographer, a graphic designer and a video jockey. Her artwork progresses in series and encompasses a wide array of different media. But she constantly returns to themes of war, memory and beauty, probing into the strange stranglehold religion and money have on her society.
Mirza is one of 21 artists - all women in their twenties and thirties, all Lebanese or of Lebanese origin - who are participating in "Shu Tabkha, Ya Mara?"
Curated by Zena al-Khalil and Halleh Founouni, the show marks the final stage in a four-month-long collaboration with the International Museum of Women (IMOW), a self-defined "museum without walls" in San Francisco that is committed to advancing gender equity as a basic, worldwide human right.
Earlier this year, IMOW launched "Imagining Ourselves: A Global Generation of Women," a multilingual, interactive, online exhibition that is meant to achieve its wide reach through "global gatherings" held all over the world. Khalil and Founouni have put on several such events in Beirut, each pinned to a theme such as "love" or "money." "Shu Tabkha, Ya Mara?" is their grand finale.
The show is also being held under the auspices of Xanadu, Khalil's bi-continental arts initiative that is billed as an "un-gallery" based in New York and Beirut. She writes the name with a signature typographical flourish: "xanadu*."
If the overall point of this show is a rah-rah celebration of being a proud, powerfully independent woman in the 21st century, Khalil and Founouni have given their enterprise a few local tweaks.
"Shu Tabkha" takes a time-honored question that husbands typically sling at their wives and reclaims it by making it funny and ironic. "What's Cooking" transforms "What are you making me for dinner, you subservient wench?" into "What are all you fabulously talented young ladies who are the future of Lebanon going to get up to next?" Or something like that.
"Shu Tabkha" opened at Art Lounge, where it remains on view through June 27, with a suitably bumping celebration on Saturday, replete with poetry readings and a live multimedia performance by Mirza and two other participating artists, Lena Merhej and Kinda Hassan.
Because the venue is first and foremost a bar, it opens only in the evening. But Khalil and Founouni have occupied and maximized the cavernous postindustrial space better than any exhibition that's taken up residence there yet. For once, the large rooms scattered with shabby chic lounge furniture feel full.
And, of course, "Shu Tabkha" is more than just a show. It's a veritable month-long event. Every night, the artists will give their own guided tours. On June 14, there will be an open-mike poetry jam, followed by a performance with a cellist and an opera singer, followed by "Nadine Khoury Unplugged," an acoustic concert by the local singer and songwriter.
So what of the art itself? As is so often the case with sprawling group exhibitions, there are a few gems glinting among a lot of rough material, some of which is truly terrible. Mirza's photographs stand out as winners, as do Karen Kalou's polished yet melancholy images and Mounira al-Solh's video projection "As If I Don't Fit There," by far and away the "smartest," most critical, visually seductive and intellectually sophisticated piece on view.
Khalil's own work is included - a reprise of her solo exhibition "I Love You," which just ended at Espace SD - as is Founouni's, through a set of deliciously acerbic paintings that make a fine case for portraiture's enduring expressiveness and contemporary relevance.
Other highlights include Tamara al-Sammeraei's stop-motion video "Music Box" and Marya Kazoun's crazy installation and video, sustaining her Cathy de Monchaux-style gross-out, body-yuk aesthetic.
Also intriguing is Sintia Karam's photographic attempt to track Rafik Hariri, after his assassination, by following the traces of him - the posters and pins - that his murder provoked. The project cobbles together an unsuspecting portrait of a city through the image-obsessed behavioral patterns of its inhabitants.
The rest? Pretty barren in terms of artistic merit but overall, "Shu Tabkha" thrives on energy and enthusiasm more so than any individual combination of talent, will, ambition and discipline.
As curators, Khalil and Founouni laid down criteria. They wanted Lebanese artists who were new. Many of the artists are showing their work for the first time. They also wanted works that elevated beauty above all else. Quite insistently, they wanted to get away from "art trends today that focus too much on conceptualism." And they wanted artists who are also activists - as long, one suspects, as their activism doesn't seep into or find expression in their art. (This forced division between beauty in art and political engagement in life doesn't work unless one wants to reinforce the notion that art is a nice preoccupation for women with money to indulge in to stave off boredom while their husbands are at work).
Moreover, the curators wanted sincerity and fearlessness and a show that would go against the grain of the "status quo of mainstream art exhibits in Lebanon," whatever that may be. Finally, they wanted a show that would instigate a community capable of creating "a unified national identity."
"Shu Tabkha" grates with its political naivete and derivative feminism, but none of this ideological buttressing is necessary and is best left as background noise. The show functions on its own sheer exuberance. The girl-power trip is outdated but forgivable.
A few years ago, Artforum ran a panel discussion in print attempting to reassess the legacy and historicization of feminism. Linda Nochlin - who among other things wrote the seminal essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" - remarked, "There is no point in asking how relevant feminism is to art practice, history and criticism today, since feminist consciousness is pervasive even when unacknowledged or demeaned. Feminism is not only overtly present but has over the past 30 years irrevocably changed the way we think about art, the body [and] the relationship between the viewer and the artwork."
The work "Shu Tabkha" takes on has already been done. Enjoy the art for its own sake.
"Shu Tabkha, Ya Mara?" is on view at Art Lounge through June 27. For more information, please call +961 3 997 676