Photographing the weight of compassion

“Studies Of A Self-Portrait,” Inkjet print on fine art paper mounted on dibond Triptych (30.5 x 90.5 cm).

BEIRUT: Where do British painter Francis Bacon, Czech writer Milan Kundera and the Syrian revolution come together? Until Dec. 15 the answer is Hamra’s Agial Gallery, where Lebanese dancer-turned-artist Chaza Charafeddine’s latest series of photographs “The Unbearable Lightness of Witnessing: Studies of a self-portrait” hangs.

It is perhaps not such a surprising mix for Charafeddine, whose last solo exhibition also brought together disparate elements, exploring gender portrayal in Persian miniatures and Islamic art of the Mughal period, through the unifying lens of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” – the title of the exhibition.

Just as with Dante in her previous series, in this series the relevance of Kundera to the exhibition is implied only in the title, which invites viewers to ponder the reference while browsing the works, photographs which set out to mimic the horror and pain in Bacon’s paintings – and succeed admirably.

“I wanted to research how great artists from before the Renaissance until modern times dealt with aggression, with torture, with war and its results and effects, psychological and physical,” says Charafeddine. “So I went through history and tried to see how and why they did it the way they did, until I arrived at Bacon and his portraits.

“Later on, after the exhibition, I read that he was very inspired by pictures of the war and by mutilated bodies,” she continues. “But when I saw his figures, his portraits – not self-portraits specifically, all his ‘heads’ – I felt that ... he was showing the pain in his portrait.”

Charafeddine was moved to conduct this research by her shock at the brutal turn taken by the uprising in Syria. “The question was how to deal with all of this, with this aggression around me,” she says, “my own feelings towards what’s going on and how I change. At the same time I wanted to be Bacon, who is watching his friend suffering.”

She chose a series of self-portraits to highlight the duality of her relationship to these events. On the one hand, suffering through her empathy with those wounded and killed in Syria, while on the other hand, as an artist, working to capture these emotions in herself, just as Bacon captured the misery and sickness of his alcoholic lover George Dyer in his deformed portraits of him.

Charafeddine began by attempting to recreate two of Bacon’s triptychs, keeping her photographs the same size as his paintings, mimicking the poses of the subjects and with the help of a makeup artist painting her face to recreate Bacon’s vivid colors, even painting clothes onto her neck to maintain the effect of a painting throughout.

Before posing in front of a sheet of pliable aluminum, Charafeddine and her photographer, Talal Khoury, bent and molded the ad hoc mirror, twisting and manipulating the reflection in it for each shot until they arrived at the perfect distortion of her features.

The result is a series of photographs that mirror Bacon’s disturbing paintings eerily well. It is hard to believe that the gruesome results have not been digitally edited, but are achieved entirely through clever makeup, lighting and reflections. Even the grainy quality of the photo itself gives the finished product a matte, almost opaque feel, which makes the viewer look twice to question that the photos are portraits, not pictures of paintings.

Having worked from Bacon’s triptychs Charafeddine began to create her own Bacon-esque portraits. “I wanted to be free of Bacon,” she says, “and start creating my own spectrum.”

Doing the makeup herself and using matte and glossy aluminum she came up with her own series, stylistically all Bacon, but compositionally unique. “My 2011 Faces” is a collection of ten shots using matte aluminum to create strange, otherworldly faces lit from below and more animal than human.

For “The Skin Beneath,” a series of six portraits, Charafeddine used glossy aluminum, which captures areas of her face with almost no distortion when flat, but distorts and elongates her features grotesquely when bent. The resulting photographs, mounted on light boxes to highlight the vivid colors, are less abstract and therefore more disturbing – human eyes trapped in an inhuman face.

A final triptych moves even further away from abstraction. With her face painted red and covered with scars and blisters made of wax, Charafeddine has transformed herself into something recognizably human, but the victim of a horrific accident.

These portraits are the only ones in which she wears real clothes, and the collar of the blue striped shirt at the bottom of the page only serves to make these images more disturbing, forcing viewers to acknowledge that they are photographs, rather than abstract paintings, and thereby denying them emotional distance from the work.

Whether Charafeddine is measuring the lightness of witnessing horror, as the title suggests, or the weight of compassion, as Kundera describes in his seminal work on the fleetingness of life and love, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Charafeddine’s photographs are a moving look not only at first-hand violence, but its effect on others, even at a distance.

As Kundera puts it: “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

Chaza Charafeddine’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Witnessing – Studies of a self-portrait” is at Agial Gallery until Dec. 15. For information call 01-345-213.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 10, 2012, on page 16.




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