INTERVIEW: INSIDE THE NATIONAL MUSEUM
Editor's note: The following interview is the second in a series for which The Daily Star periodically invites artists to visit the National Museum in Beirut, address the role the institution plays in the city's cultural life and consider the relationship between the museum's collection and their own artistic practice. This series is motivated by a desire to engage the museum as a space and a discourse, and to explore the relevance of archaeological relics from the past for cultural production in the present. Along the way, the artists will be encouraged to select and discuss a particular artifact from the collection, a favorite - or, in the case of Mohamed Rawas, a sarcophagus depicting the legend of Achilles that struck the artist as so uncannily familiar that he returned to his studio to retrieve a print he made in 1983. Centered in the upper half of the composition is a reproduction of the exact same piece, which Rawas - who hadn't visited the National Museum since he was a child - ripped out of a tourist brochure.
BEIRUT: Mohamed Rawas is one of Lebanon's best-known artists, and his work provides a vital link between an older, more traditional generation of painters and a younger, more critically and conceptually inclined group of artists experimenting in video, performance and photography.
In three decades of creative output, Rawas has never had much use for twee landscapes or Lebanese vistas painted as academic exercises in pointillism or impressionism. Rather, his cues are Eadweard Muybridge's motion photographs, arch art historical references to Manet and Degas, cheap Barbie dolls, the vacuous nudity of advertising imagery, the misguided restraint of sexuality and other pleasures, environmental degradation, dwindling water resources and utopian urbanism gone wrong.
Rawas' paintings and prints, always densely textured and heavily layered, have grown over the years into bold, sturdy constructions.
His architectural assemblages in balsawood or aluminum, increasingly populated by tiny figurines, now require frames up to 7 centimeters thick. More three-dimensional cubes than one-dimensional planes, Rawas' recent works bring to mind Joseph Cornell's shadowboxes, though the clean meticulousness and sly sarcasm of the former strikes a radically different chord than the warm, melancholy nostalgia and Victorian bric-a-brac quality of the latter.
Rawas hasn't held a solo exhibition in Beirut since 2004, when Saqi Books published a major monograph in his honor to coincide with a show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz. This is not to say he hasn't been active - he has secured a dealer in Paris, Galerie Claude Lemand, to serve as the exclusive agent for his work.
He has a few pieces on offer in the upcoming sale of contemporary Arab and Iranian art, on October 24, at the auction house Sotheby's in London. The first of its kind, the auction signals the firm's escalating interest in the region. He is currently preparing a solo exhibition slated for December at Aida Cherfan Fine Art in Downtown Beirut, to be followed by another at Art Space in Dubai in 2008. Also in the works is an ambitious installation for the Alexandria Biennial, featuring six boxes and, yes, a video.
Rawas was born in Lebanon in 1951 and entered the Lebanese University's Institute of Fine Arts 20 years later. When the Civil War broke out, he ceased painting, full stop, for two years. Then, in 1977, he left for Morocco to teach. In 1981 he returned and left again for London, where he earned a master's degree from the Slade School of Art. He has been teaching and working in Beirut ever since.
The last time he paid a visit to the National Museum was when he was seven, during a school field trip. Perhaps he came again when he was 11. He doesn't know for sure. "I don't remember a thing of what I saw then," he says. "Generally speaking I don't go to archaeology museums at all," he explains, casting his eyes somewhat coolly over the Roman statues assembled on the ground floor of the National Museum.
That said, Rawas is an avid museum-hound. He traveled to Liverpool this summer to see a retrospective at the Tate for Peter Blake, a British pop artist for whom he holds great admiration. Rawas' studio is full of catalogues for the shows he's made it a point of experiencing firsthand. Alongside those catalogues are DVDs devoted to David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Mona Hatoum and Bill Viola. These, one imagines, are his sustenance, not ancient relics unearthed from the land in which he happened to have been born.
The National Museum is for Rawas "a professional institution for researchers and students. It's for education, history and maybe for those who feel the need to be nourished by their national identity."
The artist as citizen of the world, Rawas' sense of belonging doesn't necessarily adhere to state boundaries. "If it's important to belong to a category," he says, "then [for me] it's a category of human beings. After all, was all this done by Lebanese?" he asks, arms gesturing around the museum on a quiet Saturday morning. "That's the paradox of it all. People do change locations on this planet.
"My identity is not this. My identity is not derived from the past but from the present. I don't look at these items to be proud of the Phoenicians or whatever. This doesn't move me. And this is our problem in this country. We don't work in the present to produce achievements that constitute our identity as contemporary people living in this world."
But Rawas isn't entirely unsympathetic to the collection. These remarks come moments after he stops in front of a Roman sarcophagus. "That's familiar." He leans in closer to examine the relief. "No, not this one. It had a horse." He moves on to the next piece. "This one. If I'm not mistaken, I used this in one of my works already." Indeed, later on, Rawas returns to his studio, rummages through a cabinet of flat files and finds a print from 1983 entitled "Images" that features the exact same sarcophagus.
At the museum, he reads the tag carefully: "Sarcophagus with the legend of Achilles. Marble. Tyre. Second century AD. I wonder if I used this when I was in exile," he says, brow furrowed (later, he realizes he did not). "I took it from one of these brochures the Ministry of Tourism used to print. I never knew it was Achilles.
"'Priam kneels before Achilles, begging for the body of his son Hector, who is attached to a chariot,'" he reads. "Wow, this sounds much more interesting that I thought."
The personal connection to his work aside, Rawas courses through the museum's collection in observation mode, constantly pulling the archaic pieces into contemporary references. "This reminds me of Ron Mueck's 'Dead Dad,'" he says, linking an acclaimed piece by a contemporary British sculptor to a fifth-century BC marble anthropoid sarcophagus unearthed in the vicinity of the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp.
"This is old-fashioned minimalism," he notes, passing another sarcophagus whose Phoenician inscription is spare and simple compared to the busier, fussier pieces nearby.
He stops in front of the mosaic known as "The Abduction of Europe." "Madi should see this," he says, referring to Hussein Madi, another renowned Lebanese painter with whom Rawas has long been close. "He keeps referring to this theme in his work." Before a row of strange marble statues of reclining boys, he says: "Imagine the joy of the people digging who found all these ... babies."
He grimaces. Passing a limestone model of a temple from the third century AD found in the Bekaa, he says: "This is the most fascinating," and soon, the notion of models and maquettes guides his gaze. "I am more and more using these little figurines in my work," he says. "I am more and more interested in fun and sarcasm."
One of the pieces for Rawas' upcoming show includes an entire cast of tiny characters, named the prime minister, the minister of defense, his son ("because that's how these things go," Rawas quips) and his deputy. To create a gesture blending the readymade with figuration, he sources his figurines from shops in Paris, and many of them have their roots in Japanese manga.
As such, Rawas responds more readily to the items displayed in long glass vitrines on the upper floor of the National Museum. "These things fascinate me because they aren't a bare necessity. They are a real luxury. They fall outside the practice of monumental sculpture. No one commissioned these. It had to be the joy of making them. There is an ordinary air to pots, jewels and weapons but not to these little figurines.
"When we study the cave paintings in Lascaux we are told they were done for practical reasons, as charms for hunting." He pauses. "I think this is bulls***." For Raws, art for art's sake and the quest for aesthetic pleasure is stateless, placeless and thousands and thousands of years old.