BEIRUT: "I think the fire did me good," says Rafik Majzoub as he scans his eyes across the raw concrete-block walls where his latest paintings hang. The fire this time is not the formidable pressure of putting together an exhibition of new work in just three weeks' time. Nor is it the potentially combustible atmosphere of working in close collaboration with a friend and fellow artist, Semaan Khawam. Rather, Majzoub speaks of an actual fire - one that recently wrecked his apartment, subsumed his music collection, damaged his archive of paintings and drawings and injured his left hand - the hand with which he paints. Underneath a series of works dominated by the singular figure of a black crow, Majzoub has spraypainted directly onto the wall the words "right hand" with an arrow pointing across.
Majzoub and Khawam are both painters in their mid-thirties who live and work in Beirut. They share a certain post-punk aesthetic, an imaginative ability to conjure an atmosphere of sustained magic realism, an affinity for street art and a reluctance to commit their work to the commercial spaces of the local art scene.
They first exhibited together at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche in February 2005. For their follow-up, they have taken over a derelict storefront in the Downtown Beirut neighborhood of Saifi Village. Their work is remarkably more in sync with the rough, stripped-bare interiors here than it was with the rather more staid environment of a conventional gallery.
For the current show, Majzoub and Khawam have each adopted a moniker - King Crow and King Fish - and a spraypainted stencil that spread, virus-like, through nearby streets and surfaces in the days preceding the exhibition's opening on Tuesday night. Majzoub and Khawam are no strangers to urban intervention, and they toy both knowingly and productively with the anonymity it proposes. The crow and the fish provide them each with a signature, an alias, an alter ego and a readymade subject to tunnel into in their respective works.
For the opening, Majzoub took a birdcage and chained it to the belt-loop of his jeans, dragging it around behind him throughout the evening. In a similar vein, Khawam placed a fishbowl prominently on the floor before his paintings and wire sculptures. Toward one window are a series of birdcages cobbled together from kitchen utensils. As such, the exhibition became - however briefly - a performance as well as a showcase for the work of two like-minded artists.
For Majzoub, the show marks his return to painting after the fire. For both Majzoub and Khawam, the crow and fish works construct alternative identities and explore a lurking sense of isolation.
"Neither of us ever had pets," says Khawam, who says he has always featured fish in his paintings and finds them particularly appealing because they have virtually no memory. "We were always jealous of people who had their dog or their cat." The crow and fish, then, are the artists' imaginary sidekicks as well as their creative renderings of themselves.
Strewn throughout the space are drippy, expressive portraits in mixed media and stencils aplenty. The overall vibe is one of appropriation and defiance. At a time when galleries in Beirut are less active than normal due to the ongoing political instability in the country - Majzoub and Khawam drew a map on the invitation directing people to the space and for the sake of clarity populated the blank rectangle that is Martyrs Square with a smattering of triangles to represent the opposition tents that have been in residence there for the past six months - why not take over derelict spaces, themselves evidence of stalled businesses and a tanking economy, to mount an exhibition on an artist's own terms? What, really, would he or she stand to lose? Such empty storefronts are, and have always been, sites of creative potential. It's refreshing to see a pair of artists taking the initiative to make good use of them.
Rafik Majzoub and Semaan Khawam's "King Crow and King Fish" is on view in Saifi Village, facing designer Nada Debs' boutique, through May 25. For more information, please call +961 3 737 179