BEIRUT: Rushdi Abaza's smoldering eyes look straight through you. To his right, Sabah lifts her chin in defiance. To his left, Tahiya Karioka lowers her lashes in sorrow. The Italian-Egyptian heartthrob and star of more than a hundred movies including "No Time for Love," "Beware of Women," "The Troublemakers" and "Men's Mischief," Abaza married them both, and divorced them both. Truth be told, his marriage to Sabah lasted three days, and Karioka's sadness is a cheat. Abaza may have had many wives, but she trumped him, racking up and discarding a total of 14 husbands.
"Just look at him," exclaims Laudi Abilama, gesturing with an outstretched arm toward her three-toned, pop-inflected portrait of Abaza. "He looks like a womanizer, and he was. When I was doing research for this exhibition, I found a great line from him." Abaza, apparently, divorced the last of his four wives before he died of cancer in 1980. Some men find God on their deathbed; others trade in bachelorhood for companionship, not wanting to be alone as they face down their mortality. Not Abaza. "He knew he was going to die," explains Abilama. "So he divorces his wife and says: 'I was born free, I want to die free.'"
These and other bits of salacious lore form the back-story to "Arabian Pop," Abilama's exhibition of 20 bold, beautiful portraits, on view through the end of this month at Art Lounge. The paintings of Abaza, Sabah and Karioka hang among pictures of Umm Kulthoum, Mohammad Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Mirvat Amine, Farid Atrash, Faten Hamama, Omar Sherif, Fairouz, Asmahan and more, all legends of Arabic song and screen.
"Arabian Pop" assembles a generation of actors, actresses and singers and gives them the Andy Warhol treatment. Abilama's portraits - all done in acrylic paints with touches of glitter here and there - are flat, iconic and concerned with celebrity heat and surface glamour. Like Warhol and his silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and Jackie Kennedy, Abilama selects existing images that are well-known and well-circulated, particularly those of Umm Kulthoum, Fairouz and Abdel-Halim Hafez. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Arab culture would recognize them instantly. Like Warhol and his "Diamond Dust" series, Abilama also takes an old photograph of Algerian singer Warda al-Jazairiyya, reverses the positive and negative space, and fills in the latter with gold glitter to catch the light.
But Abilama's work departs from that of her pop predecessor in one crucial way - artistic intent. Warhol's pioneering brand of pop art detached the celebrity image from the celebrity body. He played on emptiness, banality and indifference. He fused popular and elite culture to give the latter a shot of vulgarity. He used images that were of his time and in excess.
Abilama, on the other hand, is reaching back. She is excavating the relics of a golden age that is gone. And she is doing so for a purpose - to remind the Arab world of its highs rather than its lows. Does she succeed? Yes, but with reservations. "Arabian Pop" is a one-two punch, strong and precise. Warhol pop, Arab culture. But what then?
"For once, we should be proud and embrace our history," wrote Abilama in an invitation to the exhibition's opening last Friday night. Sitting in the gallery earlier this week, she elaborated on her missive. "Because I live abroad, I miss my country," she says. "I appreciate what we have here. And I feel we don't anymore," she adds, meaning have it or appreciate it. "It's time to remind people where we were and ask what happened. I hope we can bring this back through remembering," she says.
Abilama was born in the southeast of English, in Surrey. As a child, she traveled to Lebanon every summer with her family. As she grew older, she started making trips to Beirut more often and on her own. She studied at the University College for Creative Arts in Farnham, an hour outside of London.
Again in Warholian mode, she set up a company called Laudi Inc., which will, in time represent artists and designers from across the Middle East and connect them to clients all over the world. For the time being, Laudi Inc. has only one artist in its stable - Laudi Abilama. By some thin line, this allows her to separate her commercial work from her artwork. "At the end of the day, art is entertainment," she says.
Abilama's early work consisted of Western celebrity portraiture - Madonna, Betty Boop, Al Pacino in "Scarface." She did an early picture of Haifa Wehbe. She sold paintings to collectors from New York to Tokyo. She didn't listen to Umm Kulthoum's marathon performances as a kid, and she doesn't know the songs of Abdel-Halim Hafez by heart.
"From time to time, I'd hear them by mistake in Lebanon. Or see old Egyptian movies on television. The adults were always talking about them," she says. But she never really got her head around them as images or visual icons.
But then, about six months ago, the idea for "Arabian Pop" came together. "I think it's more valuable for me to get in touch with them now, as an adult."
Abilama set out on her research. "For these people, the Internet is useless," she says. The Arab world hasn't put its glorious celebrities online. "So I went around asking the older generation and found magazine archives and old newspapers."
She scans photographs onto her computer and plays with colors. She plans the composition digitally, then transfers it onto canvas - drawing the portrait, filling in pigments and adding the occasional flourish - such as glitter in Umm Kulthoum's sunglasses or on Faten Hamama's lips.
"I am influenced by Andy Warhol straight away," she says. "He's someone I look to as a constant reference." Abilama grasps his business acumen as well. "I want to travel with this exhibition. I'm quite confident that I can add and take away." Cue Warhol's endless repetitions and serializations. Cue T-shirts, posters and prints, branding in the extreme.
"I want to take this exhibition specifically to other places in the Arab world," she says. "I'm sick of people traveling and doing their Arab thing elsewhere because there are potential buyers elsewhere. I've lived it, and I think it's more appreciated here."
While painters in Lebanon seem generally stuck on 19th-century landscapes and 20th century abstraction, Abilama has company in her penchant for pop. Contemporary Egyptian artists such as Chant Avedissian, Youssef Nabil, Lara Baladi, Hassan Khan and Basim Magdy are all productively rapacious in their use and re-use of pop culture imagery. Avedissian rips Umm Kulthoum into the present in his "Cairo Stencils" series. Youssef Nabil relishes celebrity portraiture and gives the antiquated glamour of Egyptian cinema a twist. Hassan Khan and Basim Magy draw on street culture and material more of their time than these old singers and stars. Lara Baladi's T-shirts, luscious photographs and hallucinatory installations take Warholian pop on a different tack altogether.
The thing about Warhol is that his work was fun and brash but also dark and disturbing. He didn't just serialize Marilyn and Jackie O. He also serialized car crashes and electric chairs. He liked dealing with pop stars who were dead. He was morbid. As the artist Kara Walker noted in a special issue of the magazine Artforum devoted to pop, there was depth to Warhol's work. He called attention to the unsettling reality that the surface of things may be all there is left. In Hal Foster's reading, Warhol's surfaces were embedded with trauma.
On one hand, Abilama's paintings detach Arab pop stars from their music and their cinema. In that way, she castrates them. She updates them for the digital age as image only. But on the other hand, there is succor in the fact that she is proliferating images that have the potential beat back mainstream media stereotypes - the veiled woman, the suicide bomber, the crazed cleric, the poor kids in dirty clothes and plastic sandals forever caught in the crossfire.
Abilama says she respects political artists but isn't one of them. With more critical punch, her work will exert more power. But she has plenty of time. After all she's only 20.
Laudi Abilama's "Arabian Pop" is on view at Art Lounge through July 29. For more information, please call +961 3 997 676