BEIRUT: There is a strong historical tradition of politically engaged art, which tends to be directed against state authority – whether it be local or foreign.
Lebanese artist Mansour El Habre follows in the footsteps of such resistance artists in his latest exhibition “Republicafé,” currently on show at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche. The exhibition consists of 25 mixed-media pieces, an amalgam of two related series of works, titled respectively “Republicafé” and “Néographes.”
“Republicafé” consists of 10 works, eight on paper and two larger canvas works. The pieces are a criticism of Lebanon’s current sociopolitical situation. Combining photorealism with abstract and figural painting, each work features silk screen prints of Lebanese politicians, based on photographs lifted from the Internet, surrounded by missiles, guns, tires, Lebanese flags – and cups of coffee.
“They are specific politicians,” Habre confirms, “but I erase the faces because it’s not against one person. It’s against authority – against the idea.”
The cup of coffee appears in every piece, an ironic symbol of things ineffectual. “I thought of all the meetings of politicians [that have] no result,” Habre explains. “In the end they have one cup of coffee and they go.”
The exhibition’s title piece is a particularly vehement attack on the country’s political culture. In the foreground are two figures. On the right a faceless man sits calmly, tie dangling, hands clasped.
Alongside him a standing figure raises a gloved hand in a jaunty wave. His body is clothed in a smart black suit and tie but he has the head of a dog, mouth open.
The painting calls to mind the clothes-wearing pigs of George Orwell’s satirical novel “Animal Farm,” in which “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Between the two figures is a chaotic patch of abstract scribbles in reds, pinks and blues – the only splash of color in an otherwise grey-and-black image. Arrayed above, a cup of coffee in a saucer, a missile and a stylized cedar tree (the emblem of the national flag) add a further touch of the surreal. In the background, a group of suited politicians sit around a conference table, as if in earnest discussion.
The 42-year-old artist believes Lebanon is no longer a true republic, in which the government exists to represent the people.
“I see the coffee and I think about the republic, so I mix the two,” he explains. “It’s not the republic of the future – it’s only Republicafé in the end, not anything else.”
“Politeia,” one of the two canvas pieces in the Republicafé series, provides a more colorful approach. The piece takes its name from a Greek word with no real equivalent in English. It is often translated as “republic,” though (according to Liddel and Scott’s “Greek-English Lexicon”) it more closely approximates “the conditions and rights of the citizen.”
This mixed-media work has a beautifully balanced composition, contrasting screen-printed black-and-white figures with colorful figurative ones. They sit, surrounded by a litany of objects with their own metaphorical weight: spoons, forks and a half-empty whiskey bottle sit alongside a gun, a missile and the ubiquitous cup of coffee.
In the background a man, roughly rendered in a few rough brush strokes, waves distorted hands in the air. The fingers of one hand have been transformed into the tines of a fork, while the other has become a grossly inflated blob, resembling the foam hands worn at American sporting events.
With a blue face and bright red and orange hair, his overall appearance is beautiful and menacing as an out-of-control lick of flame.
The second series, “Néographes,” are equally an attack on authority, but are executed in a different, perhaps subtler, way.
The 15 mixed-media pieces (all on canvas) are more abstract, featuring chaotic blobs of color and the occasional scribbled figure on a base of newspaper clippings pasted to the surface.
The title “Néographes” reflects Habre’s attempt to create a new type of art. “I don’t like the term abstract,” he explains. “It’s a term in the history of painting and not everyone can understand what it means ... [This] is a new approach, so I think it’s good to have a new term. It’s not abstract. It’s néographe. It’s new thinking.”
“I started putting [newspaper] on the canvas,” he continues, “and then I started to erase and redraw and represent my language ... The language of art must also have authority ... It must be powerful like the language of politics.”
The “Néographes” series is perhaps more creative artistically, foregoing the use of the photographic, but it lacks the raw power and visual impact of the “Republicafé” images. With their bold black figures, accessible symbols and screen-printed images, which call to mind the stencils so often used in protest art, this latter series is more conceptually effective.
Mansour El Habre’s “Republicafé” is on display at Galerie Janine Rubeiz in Raouche until June 26. For more information please call 01-868-290.