BEIRUT: On a blazing afternoon last month, half a dozen people gathered in the foyer of a Gemmayzeh apartment building for an appointment about which they knew little or nothing.
With the elevator stilled by a power cut, the group climbed four floors and entered a flat gutted by renovations. Workers stepped from room to room, painting walls and pouring floors.
In the salon – where a dozen chairs were arranged in a circle – everyone settled down for what seemed an adult adaptation of storytelling time.
“The story of the photographs starts in 1975,” began the Italian photographer Patrizio Esposito. “It is a painful story of a hidden conflict. The people in the photographs don’t know the story of how the photographs have traveled. We have a responsibility toward the photographs, and we have many questions about them.”
Although there were no introductions, names or explanations as to why this particular group had been gathered here, Yasmine Eid-Sabbagh had phoned beforehand to say this would be one of four private encounters held as part of the paradoxically public programming for “Image in the Aftermath,” an exhibition that opened a few nights earlier at the Beirut Art Center.
In many respects, this show digs up familiar questions from the vault of local and regional exhibition making. Is contemporary art capable of capturing, addressing or adequately responding to traumas of the magnitude of civil war, invasion, occupation, bombardment or siege?
Lebanese artists such as Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige – all of whom are featured in “Image in the Aftermath” – have shown their works as a means of answering (and complicating) such questions before.
The subtlety, nuance and “newness” of the Beirut Art Center’s current exhibition, however, is that it does not dwell on the traumatic per se but emphasizes instead how images change – in form, content, cultural status, making, meaning and method of dissemination – in the wake of devastating conflicts.
So the restitution of a wrecked Super 8 film that may or may not show the face and body of Joreige’s uncle, who disappeared during the Civil War, makes some sense alongside pages of text by the artist Hassan Khan, each pinched between glass, which tells a story of class resentment in the style of pulp fiction, or video collages by the critic and theorist Boris Groys, exploring how films and artworks move through time, space, revolution, spectacle, mass-market entertainment and the museum.
In this way, setting up a heavily scripted, off-site encounter was another elaboration of the Beirut Art Center’s curatorial conceit.
Eid-Sabbagh is an artist and a member of the Arab Image Foundation, a non-profit association that has been working with photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora since 1997. The private space is in fact the foundation’s new office.
The Arab Image Foundation is the first institution to be named a custodian of “Necessità dei volti,” a hand-bound book of nearly 500 photographs, plucked from the bodies of Moroccan soldiers who were killed or captured on contested land during the monarchy’s long, drawn-out war in the Western Sahara with the Polisario Front.
The Polisario collected these belongings from 1975 through 1991. In addition to photographs – usually small portraits of loved ones, children, siblings, wives – they gathered weapons, clothing, medical records and other personal documents.
The Polisario organized the material by type and stored everything in wooden munitions boxes, lodged in the sand and left under open sky. Over time and since the implementation a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, they built walls around the boxes and named the site the Sahrawi War Museum.
“The Polisario kept evidence of the conflict to give a face to the conflict,” said Esposito. “Generally, in a war, it’s expected that your enemies lose their faces. But here the Polisario kept their faces. The Sahrawis themselves don’t appear in the photographs. They appear only in the gesture of keeping the photographs of their enemies.”
Only 20 copies of “Necessità dei volti” have been made. Only nine copies have been given away. Among the recipients are the late novelist and Nobel Laureate José Saramago, and the filmmakers Ken Loach, Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan. It was to see, hold, touch and discuss the book that these four meetings were convened in May.
“Necessità dei volti” (The Necessity of Faces) is part of a larger, ongoing project by a loose collective of artists, writers, thinkers, filmmakers and other advocates of the Sahrawi cause. Another part is “Vedere l’occupazione” (Seeing the Occupation), which consists of photographs and video footage made in secret, on mobile phones and tiny digital cameras, by Sahrawis living under Moroccan rule. (The war may be over, but the Polisario is still fighting for an independent state.)
Six members of the collective, including Esposito and Eid-Sabbagh, worked on the current incarnation of the project – a three-room installation at the Beirut Art Center bundled under the title “Sahara Occidentale, con poche immagini” (Western Sahara, Few Images), the four private encounters in Gemmayzeh and some pamphlets.
This is the first time the collective has placed its work in an art space, and it hasn’t gone well. The installation is fussy. One room features digital cameras, dangling from iron rods, which are only operational a few hours a day. Another room features four small projectors, also dangling from iron rods, which are beaming images on the floor. Two of the projectors died during the opening reception, and then someone stole them, which closed down the entire installation for a week.
Theft aside, the glitches are symptomatic. “Image in the Aftermath” is beset by technical problems, from Khan’s pages slipping from the glass to Boris Groys’ video collages running without sound. The argument by a Beirut Art Center staffer that Groys’ accent is annoying, so better to watch his works without sound, is either a copout, a shirking of responsibility, or an expression of the space’s creeping technical ineptitude.
The idea behind the Sahrawi project has always been “not to show the images but to show only the gesture of keeping them,” Esposito explained. “So no exhibitions, no books, no interviews, only private encounters.”
“We had many discussions,” added Eid-Sabbagh. “Did we really want to do this step of moving into a public, cultural space? We still have trepidation.”
“Every time we go public with some of the work, we have to reflect on how and why,” said Esposito. “We give ourselves the opportunity to experiment. We are committed but we don’t always have the occasion to meet. Behind the scenes there are many moments when we can continue working, thinking and reflecting.”
Saramago openly disagreed. In an interview with one of the members, he said: “One copy is not enough,” and admonished the collective to make “Necessità dei volti” more widely and readily available, “to carry real weight.
“These same meetings,” he added, “should be used to mobilize public opinion, and involve the international media … Little by little is no use at this point … The last thing the Sahrawi need is to be left on their own.”
“Image in the Aftermath” is on view at the Beirut Art Center through July 16. For more information, please call 01-397-018 or visit www.beirutartcenter.org.